Over the past decade, I’ve fielded many questions regarding “artificially generated stampedes.” Probably because the phrase does not officially exist. Truth be told, I made it up about 10 years ago. You see, I required a term that encompassed the wireless embodiment, or modern technological equivalent, of shouting “FIRE” in a crowded theater. But on an unfathomable scale.
For many, the concept is an admittedly difficult one to grasp. Likely due to the sensitive social mores involving suffocation. The subject matter is admittedly uncomfortable.
At one time or another, everyone has experienced the feeling of panic. It’s a distinct emotion. Still, most Americans have rarely found themselves in a sudden, mass crisis, crowd safety predicament. One where they’re compelled to make a definitive choice regarding life and death. Flee or stay put. Hey, if I had all the right answers, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Stampedes are actually pretty common on the worldwide stage. Since the beginning of February 2019 alone, there have been several. Erawat Dwar, India… Telangana, India… Multan, Pakistan… Kuala Lampur, Malaysia… Maiduguri, Nigeria… Port Harcourt, Nigeria. These deadly incidents used to register in the American cable news cycle. Nowadays, they rarely even make the cut. Perhaps there’s simply too much other stuff going on. Maybe stampedes aren’t that interesting. Maybe people don’t care. I do not know.
However, when there’s a stampede in the United States… now that’s a different story. Such was the case at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco during a 2-15-19 Friday night performance of Hamilton. Someone in the audience had a heart attack. EMTs were summoned and quickly arrived at the scene. An alarm was sounded but no justification was given. Unfortunately, the timing of this medical emergency coincided with a mock shooting on stage. An uncertain number of people conflated the arrival of paramedics as a response to an active shooter incident. Topping it off, someone allegedly yelled the word “gun.” That probably didn’t help matters either. This chain of events precipitated a real-world panic. Theater employees, the audience, and the cast and crew engaged in a spontaneous self-evacuation. Four people were hospitalized with a variety of injuries. One of them with a broken leg. Brings new meaning to the old thespian expression “break a leg,” eh?
It’s all about the Hamiltons, baby. Just sayin.
When people think about human stampedes, they tend to envision stadium crowds in the 50,000 – 100,000 range. Or perhaps a religious pilgrimage exceeding a million. But the plain truth is that stampedes are just as likely to occur in small crowds (shopping malls, grocery stores, high school auditoriums, and so on). It’s all about unexpected circumstances and unanticipated variables.
Because bad things never happen, until they happen.
In the aftermath of a crowd crush, there’s often a strange tendency to denigrate the fallen. There is no rational explanation as to why this happens. It’s just a predisposed bias in the quest to assess blame. Maybe the crowd was angry and hostile. Such could be the case with a government protest or impassioned political rally. Maybe the crowd was intoxicated or engaging in acts of debauchery. Think in terms of a rock concert. Maybe there was a throng of starving people at a U.N. relief station and the dynamic descended into chaos. Whatever the claim, it’s customary to find fault with the crowd itself. It’s just a lot easier for investigators and the population at-large to justify a tragedy with the following rationale — The crowd went berserk. They were behaving like animals. Everything spiraled out of control.
So what makes the Hamilton stampede stand apart from other stampedes? Good question. Among major cities, San Francisco has the highest cost of living in the entire United States. And Hamilton is the hottest production going. Tickets often fetch Super Bowl level prices. I wasn’t there, but I imagine those in attendance were dressed to kill. Figuratively of course. On second thought, perhaps not. Let’s just agree that those who panicked on that fateful evening were NOT impoverished. This wasn’t a poor, frustrated, angry, dirty mob. All things considered, this was quite possibly the wealthiest human stampede (on a per capita, individual basis) in the history of mankind. Think about it.
My point — the panic dynamic can engulf anyone, anywhere, anytime. Human stampedes do not discriminate.
Let’s face it. Large crowds have assembled since Moses wore short pants. It’s just part of the human condition, inextricably linked to tribal behavior. Our underlying motivation to join larger groups is grounded in shared interests, common bonds, and self-preservation. This isn’t speculation. It’s fact. Based on centuries of simple observation and millions of prior gatherings.
However, things have changed. These days, there’s a single, noticeably striking, common variable in play. One that has been introduced into all large crowds during the past 20 years. Would anyone care to dial up a guess? Well, I’ll spare you the trouble. It all started in 1998. It’s these mini super computers that everyone’s seemingly obsessed with. They’re called cell phones.
Now let’s try viewing this “cell phone/wireless technology” variable thingy with a long-term event horizon. I believe it’s reasonable to assume that at a future point in time, someone will try to saturate a large crowd with deliberately false information. Their objective being to create a synthetic panic which morphs into a stampede. And sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this has already happened. More than once.
Alright, now the last time I checked, the United States has a ton of stadiums, ballparks, arenas, etc. Theaters too, right? So here’s a novel idea. How about we get ahead of the curve on this one? And just tell people straight up… that under no circumstance whatsoever, would a legitimate venue evacuation order be delivered via their personal cell phone? It’s the least you can do. And hey, it’s the truth. The alternative option is to stick with the status quo. And just wait around, biding our time… until there’s a catastrophic, cellular driven panic in which droves of innocent people are killed and injured.
You’d think the best choice here would be really obvious. Apparently not! (fake gasp)
Like I said, it’s all about the Hamiltons. Er, uh, Benjamins.