Monday, December 01, 2008

How to turn anyone into a killer

Last Friday shoppers who'd been waiting outside a Wal-Mart for hours burst into the store, tragically trampling to death one of its employees.

Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless.

Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him. Others who had stood alongside Mr. Damour trying to hold the doors were also hurled back and run over, witnesses said.


Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One of them, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like “savages.” Shoppers behaved badly even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.

“When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning,’ ” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping.”

The Milgram experiment among others has shown us definitively that ordinary citizens can become torturers and killers if you just nudge them inch by inch, initially asking them to do something trivially bad then gradually making them do worse things. That's how young idealistic recruits into government become bad.

In this case had the wave of shoppers been waiting only a couple of minutes I think they would in fact have become good Samaritans rather than homicidal. In fact they wouldn't have stormed the store in the first place. They would've been civil. It's the pressure of having been in line for hours, almost a full day if we are to believe the quote above, and in the cold(?) that turned these people into savages, as Cribbs describes them. Samaritan or otherwise, when under pressure, under stress, we all move closer to the edge. That said, stress and pressure may be contributing causal factors but they are not excuses. These people are guilty of having killed a person.

Since Cribbs was an observer she might've been closer to the back of the line. You'd expect people who've waited less and were less motivated to come and shop early to be among the more sober ones. Those who came earliest were the most motivated, the most "fanatical", therefore, the most dangerous, the most "savage."

In the aftermath I wouldn't be surprised if some of those shoppers directly responsible will even denigrate the deceased. They might call him stupid for putting himself in harm's way. These shoppers like all of us consider themselves decent, law abiding citizens. The psychological dissonance of having been party to a homicide demands an immediate resolution. In order to regain consonance, to maintain their self-image of being a good person, it is most likely they will pass the buck and blame--to the victim, to Wal-Mart, to the police, to circumstances. Admission of personal culpability/responsibility would be too painful a blow to their self concept. Needless to say, admission may get them incarcerated.

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