The Hajj disaster and why it’s not a stampede

google_snipThese disasters at the annual Hajj in Mecca occur with awful regularity. As the crowds have got bigger, the Saudi government have introduced more infrastructure for coping with large numbers of people, and larger numbers of people go to the Hajj because more can be accommodated. Attending the Hajj is a duty for observant muslims and there’s only one week a year in which you can make the pilgrimage. And with the increasing ease of air travel, the annual attendance goes up.

I’ve written before about crowd disasters which the media have labelled stampedes. On the 31st December 2012, a number of people were killed in a crush at a fireworks event in the Ivory Coast. In January 2014, 18 people were killed in a crush at the funeral of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in India. In those posts I set out my objections to the use of the term stampede, which I’ll briefly repeat here:

  • The word stampede provokes in the mind images of people running mindlessly in free space; all crush events happen in highly-compressed crowds.
  • Stampede implies that people are trampled underfoot; again, people die standing up of compressive asphyxiation. The photos the media tend to show are of the bodies gathered away from the place they fell and separated from living victims. For instance, this still from a video of the Hajj 2015 disaster clearly shows how people have collapsed forward when no longer supported by the crowd – they’ve died on their feet.

hajj_crush_video_still

  • Stampede is a term that is generally applied by the western media to crowd disasters that happen in darker-skinned parts of the world, or in situations such as the Thanksgiving Day, 2008 disaster at Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island USA, where the poor and disadvantaged could be discounted and described as animals. Fundamentally, I consider the use of the word to be racist.
  • Stampede is a convenient description for the authorities, because it allows them to blame the victims rather than take responsibility for their own actions (Saudi Arabia, the world is looking at you).

Liz Borkowski at the excellent Pump Handle blog wrote on this disaster on the 28th September. Rather than repeat her whole article, I recommend you go over there and read it for yourself. I am going to borrow one quote from that piece, which is from John Seabrook In a 2011 New Yorker article on crowd disasters, which comments on the manner in which the media report such disasters:

In the literature on crowd disasters, there is a striking incongruity between the way these events are depicted in the press and how they actually occur. In popular accounts, they are almost invariably described as “panics.” The crowd is portrayed as a single, unified entity, which acts according to “mob psychology”—a set of primitive instincts (fear, followed by flight) that favor self-preservation over the welfare of others, and cause “stampedes” and “tramplings.” But most crowd disasters are caused by “crazes”—people are usually moving toward something they want, rather than away from something they fear, and, if you’re caught up in a crush, you’re just as likely to die on your feet as under the feet of others, squashed by the pressure of bodies smashing into you. (Investigators collecting evidence in the aftermath of crowd disasters have found steel guardrails capable of withstanding a thousand pounds of pressure bent by crowd force.) In disasters not involving fire, panic is rarely the cause of fatalities, and even when fire is involved, such as in the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, in Southgate, Kentucky, research has shown that people continue to help one another, even at the cost of their own lives.

It is likely to take some time before a complete picture of what happened at Mecca emerges, but I can guarantee it will be a failure to control the foreseeable risk of crushing in very large crowds. The Saudi authorities must act to reduce the sheer numbers of people attending Hajj in the future, even if that means leaning on the religious authorities to update their doctrines about when the Hajj pilgrimage can be made. Because the religious authorities themselves have to take responsibility; it’s not good enough to say that people’s deaths are the willl of Allah. If they can (and because religion is a man-made thing, of course they can) declare that pilgrimages to Mecca can be made at any time of the year, then immediately the sheer numbers of people likely to be there at any one time are drastically reduced. If the Saudi authorities introduce absolute limits on the numbers of people attending on any one day and ticketing to ensure that the numbers entering any particular area are controlled by time slots, then the numbers of people in any particular area will be at much safer levels and dangerous crowd concentrations are unlikely to arise. There are other factors as well, such as ensuring that crowd flows don’t mix, but all of this is manageable.

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