When a towering tsunami swept over much of the Asian coast four years ago, the result was shocking, but at least scientists could produce an explanation as to why this natural disaster had occurred. A massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake deep beneath the Indian Ocean created vibrations that spawned the tsunami, which engulfed coastal villages and left tens of thousands of people dead.
Finding an explanation for the wave of people who swept over Jdimytai Damour inside a New York Wal-Mart, leaving the 34-year-old man dead in their wake, is more difficult.
Damour was a temporary worker at the Wal-Mart store 20 miles east of Manhattan. He had been on the job only about a week when he died on Nov. 28, the Friday after Thanksgiving. It's called "Black Friday," an ominous name for what usually is a festive occasion, the beginning of the Christmas selling season, the day when store budgets go from red to black because of heavy holiday sales.
Damour, unlike the frail elderly greeters at many big-box stores, was a 6-foot-5, 270-pound man. Store officials said he was placed near the entrance to help with crowd control.
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Instead, the crowd, in the single-minded pursuit of a bargain, broke down the store's electronic doors and trampled Damour, who died of asphyxiation. At least four other people were treated at hospitals, including a woman who was eight months pregnant.
Later, when store officials asked shoppers to leave so they could remove Damour's body, they refused.
How could this happen? Are people so ravenous for a bargain that they would trample a man to beat fellow customers to cheap plasma TVs, DVD players and iPods?
We are left morbidly trying to envision what the scene must have been like. Did the stampeding shoppers step on Damour and just keep going? Did no one try to help him? Were the bargain hunters so intent on their pursuit that they simply didn't notice a man the size of an NFL lineman at their feet?
The morphology of the mob is familiar enough. Individuals give themselves over to the collective frenzy, as the mob becomes a single-minded beast, acting as one. This was, by any evaluation, an out-of-control mob, but that doesn't explain fully the animalistic behavior.
Ironically, the tsunami might provide a better model. Instead of a shock wave from an earthquake, these people were propelled by the giant tremor of materialism that rattles the ground under our feet, especially at this time of the year.
It doesn't pay to be too judgmental, of course. Most of us feel the tremor, too, and it can make us apprehensive and uncertain, scared that we might be missing some elusive chance at acquisitive bliss, a shot at true material fulfillment.
Guilt will be parceled out in the Wal-Mart stampede. Police are reviewing store videos and questioning customers to see if they can single out anyone who might have been involved directly in Damour's death.
Damour's family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, claiming store ads offering fantastic deals "created an atmosphere of competition and anxiety" that led to "crowd craze." The lawsuit contends that the store lacked adequate security to handle the crowds.
Those are reasonable allegations. The store probably bears some responsibility for helping to stir up this perfect storm.
Even if the people who trampled Damour or rushed past him without stopping to help are not identified, they no doubt know who they are. They will have to live with the memory of what they did.
Whatever joy they might have gained from whatever deals they found at Wal-Mart that day will be fleeting. But remorse over trampling someone to death in a mad rush for a bargain?
That's something that could last a lifetime.