LEESBURG, Va. (BP)–If actions speak louder than words, what do recent events at a New York state Wal-Mart say about the state of American culture?
On “Black Friday,” 2,000 burst through the doors of a Wal-Mart store in Long Island at 5 a.m., trampling an employee to death in a mad dash to get to sale items before the person next to them. Signs of America’s rampant consumerism have existed for decades, but this tragedy takes the cake.
With only minutes to spare before the discount store opened, the crazed crowd pushed through the doors, knocking Jdimytai Damour down and breaking the doors off their hinges. As the crowd surged, people stepped on Damour and knocked over other employees who struggled to help him. Two thousand ravenous shoppers, many of whom had no idea what was going on, shoved and pushed each other in a mad rush. The selfishness is clearly seen by one employee’s experience: “When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling ‘I’ve been [in] line since yesterday morning.’ They kept shopping.”
This tragedy points to the selfishness of the human heart and demonstrates that greed is not confined to the scions of Wall Street. Quite the contrary, these Main Street shoppers pursued their own materialistic impulses at the expense of the needs of those around them. They were focused on themselves, intent on getting to the deals first. Their trampling of Mr. Damour, each other, and the employees who were trying to help him, exhibits hearts that care more about saving $50 on an HDTV than about the health and safety of their fellow man.
Sadly, this event is not unique. Just a couple of weeks ago, a number of people watched a teenager commit suicide live via webcam. Some, with ghoulish delight, goaded him on as he took a large dose of antidepressants, saying things like “Oh, that’s not enough to kill you” and “Go ahead and do it.” Only after the young man had been lying on his bed for hours did someone finally contact the police. The anonymity of the Internet enabled many of these voyeurs to engage in a perverse form of entertainment. Their “fun” contributed to the death of a young man.
This self-centered disregard for human life reminds us of another episode of pathological neglect that occurred in 1964 in Queens, New York. Catherine Genovese was knifed in the alleyway leading up to her apartment. She screamed for help, but none was forthcoming. Several lights went on in the windows of the neighboring apartment complex. One man shouted from the safety of his apartment, “Let that girl alone!” But no one bothered to call the police until half an hour after the attack. By the time the police arrived, it was too late.
Why wouldn’t these neighbors place a simple phone call when they heard the young woman’s screams? One man, who eventually called the police “after much deliberation,” explained, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Another man saw the killer attack the woman again from a crack in his door, but didn’t call the police. His reason? “I was tired. I went back to bed.”
There is a common thread that runs through this 1964 case of willful abandonment, the sordid online suicide, and the Wal-Mart trampling: These tragedies occurred because individuals were looking out for their own interests rather than that of their fellow man. Their actions led to the deaths of their neighbors, and for what? A couple of hours of “fun” online voyeurism? A little extra sleep? $50 off of a TV?
How did we get to this point in “the home of the brave”? Why do so many Americans exhibit so little concern for their neighbor? Doubtless, there are many causes, but prominent among them is our willingness to sacrifice core principles of human dignity on the altar of convenience. We live in a culture that is so self-centered that we are no longer expected to deal with the “inconvenience” of an unwanted baby. Nor can we be bothered to care for our aging parents. Just stick them in a nursing home at government expense and forget about them — or better yet, encourage them to take the “dignified” way out. We selfishly maintain that our “progress” must continue through “scientific research” free of ethical restraints, notwithstanding that such “progress” kills or debases nascent human life. Our convenience, our comfort, our self-centeredness trumps the value of someone else’s life.
Mother Teresa well understood the destructive impact of radical selfishness. Regarding abortion she declared, “[I]f we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of peace and love is abortion.” She rightly understood that when one form of killing is accepted on the basis of personal convenience, other forms of violence inevitably will follow.
The trampling of Jdimytai Damour should be a wake-up call to each one of us. It should cause us to pause and consider whether we place too high a value on our own convenience and our own possessions. We should examine our hearts and ask ourselves whether we any longer have the capacity to sacrifice our own desires for the good of another. We are missing the big picture if events like these capture our attentions just long enough for us all to gasp and say, “How awful!”, then turn back to our shopping carts and our self-centered lives.
Jesus warned us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus’ words were a repudiation of materialism and an exhortation to value those things that endure throughout eternity. In our consumer-driven age, we would do well to heed his words.
Ken Connor is chairman of the Center for a Just Society based in Washington D.C.