While terrorists were massacring people in Mumbai over Thanksgiving weekend, Americans were engaged in another deadly pursuit: shopping. Nassau police told Newsday late this week that the stampede that killed Jdimytai Damour, the 34-year-old temporary worker at the Wal-Mart branch at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, Long Island, may have been ignited by a line-cutting dispute between shoppers who had waited for hours outside the store and those who stayed in their cars until shortly before 5 a.m. when the store was set to open.
Witnesses say that some 2,000 crazed consumers crashed through the store's doors and trampled over Mr. Damour, crushing his wind-pipe, for such bargains as 50-inch plasma high-definition TV's, stand-up vacuum cleaners, digital cameras, jeans, and DVD's. The police said Mr. Damour suffocated to death while trying to shield a pregnant woman against the onslaught.
Who is responsible for the death of this 34-year-old gentle giant, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 270 pound temporary worker whose sister said he was "full of life" and had a "good heart"?
The New York Times says that President George Bush contributed to the tragedy by telling us after 9/11 to do our patriotic duty by manning the malls.
"For decades, Americans have been effectively programmed to shop," one reporter opined in a particularly idiotic foray into pop-sociology on the Sunday after Damour's death. "The American economy has become a kind of piñata," he wrote, citing Bush's moronic post-9/11 advice. It has "lots of treats in there, but no guarantee that you will get any." As a result, the reporter concluded with no trace of irony, people, fearing "they might go home empty-handed, become "prone to frenzy."
Parade magazine supported this dubious diagnosis by quoting Martin Lindstrom, the author of "Buyology: "Truth and Lies About Why We Buy," who says there are 17 million "shopaholics" in America who have helped the average American household rack up $10,000 in credit-card debt. Leave your cards home when you shop, he says, or avoid getting them at all.
A column in The New York Post blamed "anxiety about the economy" for the mayhem. Candida Fink, a New Rochelle-based psychiatrist, says such worries generate "an energy that builds up" and is "contagious" as consumers search for deals. Dr. Estyne Dell Rio-Diaz, a Manhattan-based behavioral psychologist, blamed, and I'm not making this up, "neurotransmitters." In crowds, she told The Post, "the dopamines – which stimulate the pleasure parts [of the brain] – are harried to such an extent that all people are thinking about is what to grab."
Jordan Hecht, a New York lawyer representing Mr. Damour's three surviving sisters, blames Wal-Mart, Green Acres Mall, and the security company that hired but failed to train Mr. Damour in crowd control techniques. In a wrongful death civil suit filed Tuesday, Hecht alleges that Mr. Damour died because of the defendants' "carelessness, recklessness, wanton disregard for public safety and gross negligence." He disputed Wal-Mart's assertions that the company, known for its low wages and minimal benefits, had tried taking precautions by hiring extra workers and erecting some barricades. He did not discuss the company's description of Mr. Damour, whom it had employed for only a week, as "part of the Wal-Mart family," or that "when incidents like this occur, we take care of our own." Was the company hinting it wants an out-of court settlement? The police initially asserted that Wal-Mart bears at least some blame. Where were the barricades and rope lines associated with crowd control? At a news conference soon after Damour's death, Nassau police spokesman Michael Fleming said that Wal-Mart did not have enough security on hand.
Others blamed the Nassau County police themselves, who showed up at 3 a.m. and then left before the opening. But why should the police be responsible for organizing shoppers for Wal-Mart? A police spokesman initially said that investigators were poring over cell phone and surveillance camera images to determine whether anyone might be criminally liable. But later, he said he doubted that individual shoppers would be blamed, given the difficulty of identifying them on film or proving that individuals in the frenzied mob intended to kill Mr. Damour.
That's too bad. Because the shoppers who pushed him to the ground to save about $100 on a $798 Samsung 50-inch Plasma HDTV, or $65 dollars on a $134.84 Samsung 10.2 digital camera, or $3 for "The Incredible Hulk" DVD, which normally retails at $9, deserve public opprobrium at very least, if not jail. They continued shopping as paramedics pounded on Mr. Damour's chest, trying to revive him. They complained when the store was closed so that his body could be removed. And they flocked to the store at 1 p.m. when the branch re-opened for business, obscenely, as if nothing had happened.
Attorney Hecht, targeting Wal-Mart and other companies, was quick to absolve shoppers of blame. "They are not responsible," he told FOX News earlier this week.
Perhaps greed is not criminal and behaving like a crazed animal is understandable in light of tough economic times. But I think many Americans would disagree, even avid shoppers like me. Blaming "capitalism" for such conduct, or diluting Wal-Mart's responsibility through psycho-babble about the addiction of shopping only underscores the injustice of Mr. Damour's fate.