When Shopping Becomes Unpatriotic

Yesterday Jdimytai Damour, a maintenance worker from Queens, NY, died when he was trampled to death by an onslaught of eager shoppers at Wal-Mart. Damour was working in the store when it opened early for Black Friday. Customers had been waiting in line all night with hopes of scoring big-ticket sales items, notably a limited number of plasma HDTVs. The crowd tore the doors off the store in their desperation to get inside. Damour was knocked to the ground. His coworkers struggled to get to him and were also pushed down. Later when police closed the store in order to investigate Damour's death, customers refused to leave and attempted to continue shopping.

I have often contemplated what I would do during a crisis if I were to be surrounded by a panicked crowd. On September 11th, 2001, as the second tower of the World Trade Center fell, I thought about the people in the stairwells. At the time I was a licensed Emergency Medical Technician and had to practice mass casualty incidents as part of my training. The instructors often stressed the fact that buildings could usually be evacuated safely as long as no one panicked and started shoving others aside. In the role of an EMT, a late arrival to the scene of destruction, I knew how to calm people and facilitate an orderly exit. But I worried that I wouldn't be as calm if I were one of the people trapped inside. Had anyone trying to flee the second tower, before the plane crashed into it, panicked? Had they shoved people in the stairwell, resulting in them escaping, but trapping many others in the chaos they'd created?

How many lives would I be willing to endanger to protect my own? I frequently ask this question.

I'd be curious to know how many other people contemplate what their actions would be in emergency situations. For six years I was chronically homeless and survival was foremost in my mind. The other street kids and I were confronted with ethical issues that most Americans have not had to face. If you were starving, and so was your friend, but there was only enough food to feed one of you, what would you do? I know from experience that I would volunteer to starve. But starving is different than fleeing a building that is on fire because death can be wrestled from hunger's grip over a period of time. Burning to death is a discrete experience.

I want to be able to say with conviction that I would wait patiently for those in front of me to exit the plane or room or office, in the case of something like a bomb threat. I want to be able to state was as much certitude as I can about starving that I would prioritize the good of the group ahead of my own survival. But there's an intimidating voice in my head that asks whether I'd be fine with waiting while someone who walked slowly wasted the precious seconds between me and death. I feel horrible about the fact that sometimes I think that the voice has a valid point.

Perhaps this entire thought exercise sounds alarmist and misplaced on a blog about art, culture and politics. However, people all over the world have to make these decisions every day of their lives. Most often those faced with these gruesome choices are poor. They have to decide how much food they will give their children and how much they will keep for themselves. They have to worry about fires starting in the slums where they live. They have to choose how or when to fragment their families as the adults look for work, possibly abroad, where they will be living illegally. No one who makes these decisions does so lightly. To sacrifice another person's life for your wellbeing is painful to contemplate for almost anyone in the world. The exception would be Americans who want cheap plasma HDTVs.

Whenever confronted with something that elicits a negative reaction in me, I challenge myself to delve deeper, to ask why. Since yesterday I have been asking why a crowd of consumers would kill a man for a TV. I try to put myself into the scene. I have been standing in line all night. Perhaps I want the TV because I've been laid off this year and I haven't been able to give my kids everything I want to be able to give them. This TV is my chance to show that I love them. It is also a chance to prove to myself that I can still provide for my family.

When the doors open the crowd surges. People who have just pulled into the parking lot are rushing ahead of me. I have put so much stock in this TV redeeming me in my eyes as well as my children's that I can't afford to fail. Adrenaline pumps through my muscles as I tear the door off its hinges. Three people who have been standing in line with me all night help. We fling it aside and push our bodies into the solid mass in front of us. By the time I reach the shelf I had carefully scouted the day before, all of the TV's are gone. I begin sprinting through the store, desperate to find something that will serve the same function of validating my ability to care for my family. When police officers demand that I leave the building empty handed I try to brush them aside. How dare they control me when my life feels so out of control?

Later, watching the news reports about Damour's death at home, I can't shake the memory of something spongy giving under my foot as I shoved towards the electronics section. It could have been a hat, a kid's stuffed animal. Or a human with a name and a family. Do I feel any remorse? Am I so consumed by needing to find an object to validate my humanity that I can't spare a thought for the man that I may have accidentally aided in killing?

Advertisements in the U.S. are focused on explaining how products will make us better people and give us better lives and we’ve bought into their messages. A certain perfume will make a woman more independent, living for herself instead of others. A soft drink will give basketball players the boost they need to become winners.

When the economy began its downturn after September 11th the government told us to be patriotic by shopping. As the economy continued to slide we were given rebates to keep us shopping. Yesterday retailers were so worried about their profit margins that they offered deep discounts to keep us shopping. Even if some of us die as a result, we are supposed to keep shopping.

As we are all aware, the economy continues to deteriorate. Citigroup recently announced 53,000 layoffs. Unemployment rates are going up. Resources are becoming scarce. More of us are having to make decisions about who to feed first, how far to travel for work, and what we will sacrifice for our survival. The answer to these tough questions can no longer be that we will go shopping.

When a crisis is imminent the best way to ensure the survival of the greatest number of people is to seek safer ground calmly, respecting those around you. Americans are not accustomed to conceptualizing our country in this way. But it's time that we do before we trample each other to death. The most patriotic action each of us can take at this time is to contemplate how we will react when decisions about the welfare of our families must be made. There are no clear answers. I've been agonizing over these questions for years and am not entirely sure what I would do. But at least when someone else's life stands between me and what I perceive I need, I'll understand the implications of my actions.

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