On stampedes

There was a shopping fatality last week. A man named Djimytai Damour was trampled to death while working a temp job doing maintenance at a Long Island Wal Mart. This has been on my mind a lot lately, because it seems to really encapsulate what has gone wrong about our society. It strikes me as a poor yet appropriate way to kick off the festive season of Christmas

I know that this event is from a previous news cycle, and the holiday shopping coverage is now focused on how high internet traffic on Friday suggests that there will be lots of online shopping on Monday and this suggests that maybe the economic crisis isn’t so bad after all. And all this suggests that the media need to start figuring out what is really important in the world. Holiday shopping is not news, except for in the macro sense that it tells a little bit about the depth of our economic mess.

I also know that this is a relatively small human tragedy, especially when compared to some of history’s great human stampedes, including the Khodynka Tragedy of 1896 (1400 fatalities) or the Baghdad bridge stampede that killed 1000 in 2005 or the dozens of other events described on Wikipedia (which never ceases to amaze me).

Nevertheless, Djimytai Damour is still dead, and so I’m going to try to grasp a bit of meaning from his sad and pointless demise.

Stampedes are really the perfect metaphor for what is going on in our economy right now. We are caught up in a web of herd instincts that are driving us to do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do.

For example, I don’t see any way to avoid the conclusion that thousands of people spending all night (and sometimes as long as 36 hours) in line to shop is some form of mass hysteria. I mean, I could understand doing that for the latest from Hollywood. But spending Thanksgiving night outside a Wal Mart? That is just bonkers. And getting up at 4am (or even 7am, really) to be the first to get the deals is not much better.

For years, the “holiday season” has been colonizing more of the calendar. I was once listening to an NPR pledge drive heard someone talk about how some reward that they offered for a certain pledge level would make a great Christmas gift. This was the spring pledge drive, by the way.

This growing intrusion is appalling enough, but I find the progressively earlier hours to be downright creepy. In an effort to outpace their competition, stores are opening earlier and earlier. And the crazy thing is that the shoppers are responding.

This year’s economic crisis and the attendant stress that many are feeling set the stage for this tragedy. Everyone was afraid of missing something. Missing a great deal. Missing a customer who would help push the business closer to the break-even point. Missing the chance to shop before the news gets so bad that one could no longer ignore it.

There were huge lines at stores across the country, but something different happened at that one Wal Mart. And once it started, there was no stopping it. To some extent stampedes are a literal herd behavior, but even without that aspect, there was no way for the person in the middle of this event to know that they were contributing to someone’s death. And once they got to the point of having to trample Mr. Damour, it was too late. If they stopped, they would go down. We should also note that no individual in that crowd struck what could be considered a killing blow. We’ve all been stepped or fallen on at some point. It hurts, but that’s usually the extent of it.

Nobody is responsible for what happened. And yet everyone is responsible.

We are all pushed along in this mad rush to compete, to get the latest gadget. We don’t notice that we are trampling nature to feed our obsession with cars. We don’t notice that we are trampling the people of the Maldives, who are now shopping for a new country since their current home is likely to be flooded by rising sea levels. We don’t notice that we are trampling the people who suffer poverty and permanent health effects to provide us with affordable goodies. And we don’t notice what is ahead of us. We are not able to make rational decisions when caught up in a herd.

I’m sorry to be a party pooper, but we have to get out of this stampede before we all go off a cliff. Until then, happy holidays.

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