Big Screen

From the Associated Press:

NEW YORK – A Wal-Mart worker was killed Friday when “out-of-control” shoppers desperate for bargains broke down the doors at a 5 a.m. sale. Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers shouted angrily and kept shopping when store officials said they were closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.

Sale-crazed holiday shoppers trample a store employee. As Wal-Mart says, it’s a “tragic situation.” It’s also too easy a target. Yeah, there might be something wrong in people’s head when they’re so heedless of people’s safety that they’ll run over them. But there’s also something wrong in the way this whole event is framed in the AP’s lead.

The motive for the shoppers’ behavior? Desperation. For what? Bargains. Think it through: You’re being told that there are people out there so starved for price breaks on big-screen TVs, or whatever else was piled up inside, that they turned into animals? I’m not buying it. There’s something selfish, callous and crass going on in mobs like that–but desperation? No.

Interesting to try to square it with everything else we’ve seen here in the last few months: the crash of the housing market and the ensuing economic crises; the anything-goes bailouts; the suggestion that our last redoubt of heavy industry, the car companies, is about to collapse; the rising above differences that seemed to be one of the forces driving the outcome of the presidential election. I’m sure that Wal-Mart shopping crowd fits in there, but I just can’t figure where right now.

For a little contrast with a situation that does convey true fear and desperation, I recommend The New York Times’s excellent photographer’s journal on the Mumbai attacks. Especially striking, somehow, the final two frames of a crowd of onlookers.

[Later: Peter S. Goodman, a Times writer, later made a game attempt to explore and explain the tragedy. He puts the desperation into a much larger and far more convincing context.]

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