Monday morning's top news story will undoubtedly be the volume of cumulative sales generated by American Christmas shoppers this weekend, as financial analysts argue over whether or not it was "enough." But this year's "Black Friday" take-away story is undoubtedly the senseless death of a Wal-Mart employee in Valley Stream, NJ, who was trampled to death by an unruly mob of bargain hunters.
And those shoppers didn't just trample Jdimytai Damour to death; they continued to rush into the store, past his lifeless body, shoving paramedics out of the way until the agitated mob was finally pushed back by police. Then they fumed when authorities cleared the store and closed it down.
What does it say about us, when the value we place on cheap video games and DVD players overwhelms our ability to do even the simplest of decent things, to step back and allow paramedics to try to save an injured man's life?
It's easy to come up with a lengthy list of "-isms," to whose surface we can easily affix blame -- Americanism, capitalism, materialism, consumerism, racism, etc. But the root cause is far more complex, and dare I say, far more painful. Please consider this excellent analysis by The Anchoress:
I once actually saw two women quarrel over an item, just like in the movies, while Christmas shopping. I was very young, and knew everything at the time, so I blamed it on American materialism and its corruptive influence on the soul. Materialism CAN corrupt the soul, of course - as can capitalism untempered by compassion - but as I’ve matured, I’ve come to reject the easy and cynical course that finds “America” and its values to be at the core of every negative situation I encounter. Instead, I have decided to think of the aggression of the battling shoppers to be rooted in vulnerability. They’ve decided they want to purchase a particular item for someone they love. Perhaps this is how they express love. Perhaps they believe, subconsciously, that this is the only way they can be loved back. Perhaps this is a budgeted item and the only way they can afford to purchase it is at a heavily reduced price and - because they love - they’re willing to fight for it.
Looked at in this way, the “crassness” of all of this consumer excess seems less clear, and one finds oneself - as one does all too often, if one is paying attention - in the middle of yet another Holy Mystery. Love is the highest human aspiration, but when it lacks anchoring in something bigger than itself, it tends to drift a bit and take on some detritus (doubt, hurt, anger, self-hate) that gets into the workings and distorts the navigation, a little; in that case, suddenly love can lead us away from, and not toward, our best selves. And then where are you? You’re tugging on a toy with another shopper and sending all sorts of messages to your family and to the world-at-large, that you never intended to send. About yourself and your values, about your society, even about your nation.
There was an early episode of CSI, "Unfriendly Skies," that dealt with a similar ordeal. A passenger on a transcontinental flight is suffering from undiagnosed encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. This causes extreme discomfort and eventually leads to psychotic behavior. A group of five fellow passengers fears for their lives, and what begins as an attempt to restrain the victim soon escalates into a violent attack that leaves the man dead.
Although this fictional story dealt with a much more serious issue (the taking of a life in order to subdue an unknown threat and thus save one's own life) the underlying premise is the same one faced by the mob of Wal-Mart shoppers --to what extent do we ignore our conscience in order to get what we want, particularly in a situation where we assume (or dictate) that responsibility is "shared," and therefore we are somehow allowed to abdicate our normal moral boundaries?
In fact, another essay linked by The Anchoress in an earlier post noted that those who commit or inspire the greatest acts of evil (think Cromwell or Robespierre or Mugabe or Hitler) often do so because they ultimately desire to accomplish something good (religious freedom, or equality, or security). To satisfy this end, evil often masquerades as morality, imparting heavy doses of guilt and conviction to those who are judged to be less than fully committed to "the new way".
I'm sure that most of the people in that out-of-control Wal-Mart mob love other people greatly -- parents, children, neighbors, family -- and would make great sacrifices in order to impart happiness, even shallow, fleeting happiness, upon their loved ones. Yet as we have seen, even these people are capable of commiting great evil through the disordered way in which they attempted to achieve a good end. That disorder led to the death of an innocent man. The Wal-Mart incident is simply a local representation of a global problem; a problem, I believe, that is beyond the capabiliy of mankind to solve on its own.