Zambia Stampede Analysis

Eight people were killed and 28 others seriously injured in a stampede in Zambia’s capital of Lusaka on March 5, 2017.  A crowd of roughly 35,000 had gathered outside the Olympic Youth Development Center, part of an outreach program sponsored by the Church of Christ.  Minister of Home Affairs, Stephen Kampyongo, claimed the hosts failed to properly comply with the provisions of the Public Order Act.  The Zambian government has assured its people that a thorough investigation is underway to determine the cause of the stampede.

An official inquiry is important, but I think a little common sense detective work here might do the trick.

Note the description: Free Entrance & Free Food parcels.

Zambia and surrounding countries in Southern Central Africa have been hit by a severe drought since 2015.  This has led to a spike in food prices across the board.  Now keep in mind, almost 50% of the country falls under the economic classification of extreme poverty.  Obviously, this makes for some volatile circumstances a/k/a triggers.  Money and food can be very powerful motivators.  Especially when you’re broke and hungry.  It makes one wonder… had the ticket NOT explicitly stated “free food,” a mere eight letters, would the stampede have ever taken place?

There’s usually a reason why people panic.  An explanation.  A justification.  People don’t just spontaneously run for their lives.

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 had a record crowd in excess of 300,000, roughly 10x the size of the Zambian crowd.  Hmm, have you ever wondered why the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn’t release specific attendance figures?  Seems like a peculiar snippet of information to deliberately withhold.  Especially when it’s the most heavily attended sporting event on the planet earth.

Fortunately, the race went off without a hitch.  However, if you were to introduce a few hypothetical, unexpected variables into the equation, it could demonstrably alter the crowd’s psyche.  Things might take a turn for the worse.

What if, during the course of the four hour race, President Trump tweeted… “Hijacking out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport!  Plane has altered course toward central Indiana.  Transponder has been turned off.  Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be at risk!  Get those fans outta there!  NOW!!!”

What if, news reporters, sports journalists and fans at the race were besieged with targeted bomb threats on their social media accounts?  Would information of this nature spread quickly?  Think about it.  The only thing easier than tweeting is re-tweeting.  Copying and pasting is a lot easier than creating original content.

What if a rumor spread that beloved Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was giving away signed footballs at a fixed merchandise location on the concourse?  What might happen when people see others aggressively leaving their seats and unexpectedly running in the same direction, up and down metal steps for no apparent reason?  If you’ve ever witnessed a person fall down a flight of steps, it’s a really uncomfortable feeling.  Keep in mind, the decibel level at the Indy 500 exceeds every other sporting event on the planet earth.  What happens when you can see, but you cannot hear?  I’d imagine that verifying anything becomes a far greater challenge.

Residents of the central U.S., particularly states like Indiana, have become very familiar with cellular emergency notifications.  Now most people don’t question the authenticity of the WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert).  If the text reads, “Tornado approaching.  Take shelter now,” most sensible people will seek shelter.  But what might happen if there’s an accidental saturation of an imminent threat?  What if it’s fake news at the wrong time?  What if it’s real news at the wrong time?

Those were four relatively “colorful” scenarios.  But I honesty doubt you’d have to display this level of cunning to induce an artificially generated stampede.  Truth be told, there are upwards a dozen different ways to push information into large, confined crowds.  These dozen ways morph into an infinite number of options and scenarios.  Since we’re currently in the month of March, try thinking in terms of an NCAA bracket.

So here’s the bad news.  There is no reasonable contingency plan for an artificially generated stampede.  Mitigation wouldn’t be an effective tool for an undiscussable, “black swan” event that occurs in real-time.  O.O.D.A. loops (Observe, Orient, Decide Act) do not function properly when the variable of “time” is removed from the equation.

I’ll state the obvious.  Emergency evacuation protocol won’t function when it’s a self-evacuation.  Because the protocol is rendered worthless and irrelevant.  Because you got a stampede on your hands.  It’s my contention — assuming an insidious degree of malicious intent, accompanied with a certain mark of technical expertise (concerted hack, deliberate or accidental misuse of a wireless alert or opt-in notification system, etc.)… instead of “Houston, we have a problem,”  I think you’d probably be hearing the alternative version.  “Indy, we have a problem.

Unexpected variables can have unintended consequences.  Perhaps the time has come to just tell people the truth.  Cell phones, large crowds and wireless hyper-connectivity might not make for a good mix.  If you honestly believe the scenarios I’ve outlined could never result in confusion or panic, potentially resulting in a deadly stampede, well… that’s okay.  It’s your opinion and I respect it.  Regardless, I think most people would agree, that at the very least, this is uncharted territory.  That something along these will eventually happen… sometime, somewhere at some point.

But I think the superior question is this.  Could any of these scenarios be ATTEMPTED?  What happens when an individual or group willfully decides to test the cracks in the system?  Then what?  Regardless of what transpires, where does society go once the cat’s out of the bag?  Would we continue to maintain the status quo, purposely remaining ignorant and oblivious?  I don’t think so.  Not when someone’s trying to weaponize a stampede(s) and indiscriminately kill innocent civilians.  That’s a pretty big deal.

Therein lies the ethical rationale for having a frank discussion about the prospect of an artificially generated stampede.  Because it’s more than a public safety issue.  It is a moral one.