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Itaewon Massacre

2022-11-02 | Morality
Itaewon Massacre

What happened in Itaewon?

Flow of people and crowd clash at Itaewon

Crowd flow and crowd clash at Itaewon according to BBC

Itaewon is Seoul's busiest party area. On Saturday night, the 29th, tens of thousands of people converged on the neighborhood to celebrate Halloween. In an already normally crowded environment, the gathering turned into shoulder-to-shoulder crowds wandering in search of a destination... until three streams of people in opposing directions came face to face and hundreds were crushed by the thrust of those behind. Result: more than 150 dead and 300 wounded.

When do crowds become deadly?

Since the 1990s, studies on crowd behavior have proliferated in response to the increase in their numbers. In the last twenty years deadly avalanches have doubled decade by decade.

What these studies conclude is that the self-awareness of the crowd, which is necessary to avoid catastrophes, depends fundamentally on two factors.

  1. The number of people. Above certain critical numbers, the back of the crowd is unable to perceive what is happening ahead.

    With ants, as with crowds of humans, you see emergent behavior. Using a simple set of local interactions, ants form complex patterns. The difference is that we are selfish individuals, whereas ants are deeply social creatures. We want to reduce our travel time, even at the expense of others, whereas ants work for the whole colony.

    Iain Couzin, biĆ³logo del comportamiento de la Universidad de Princeton

    But the self-organization of crowds is not a natural phenomenon, but rather social by definition. For example, people who have worked in several different societies know that the self-organization of pedestrians in two flows in different directions, or even the fact that people stand on the same side and do not block the passage on escalators (classic phenomena of self-organization), occur widely in urban societies.

    So this critical number varies not only with the physical environment, but with the cultural context and even with the ages of the people in the crowd. And it varies a lot when we study the cases. A couple of hundred people in an open, unobstructed environment like a Wallmart on sale can become a death trap, while thousands in much more difficult and claustrophobic environments manage to avoid disaster. Why?

  2. First, because it was clear from the first studies that deadly avalanches are not the product of any innate selfishness but of the collapse of collective behavior.

    Helbing also observed that in certain critical densities, as occurs in a crowd agglomeration, all forms of collective behavior vanish. Shock waves are not the result of collective behavior but of the failure of collective behavior. Individuals at the back of a crowd, unable to know what is happening ahead, move forward, unaware that they are harming the people in front.

    Crush Point, The New Yorker, 30 /1/2011

    Thus, in studying cases and models, several studies have concluded that the key lies in the ability to collectively reach escape routes. And that, they point out, depends directly on the weight of individualistic behaviors in normal patterns of behavior. The greater the normalization of individualism in the culture, the more easily herd behavior appears and the lower the critical number from which a deadly avalanche becomes possible. This would explain why the number of deadly avalanches has increased more rapidly than the simple concentration of the population in crowded cities.

If we put the both factors together we can understand why historically deadly stampedes and avalanches only proliferate with the development of capitalism. But there is more.

Korean culture or unsustainability of the capitalist city?

Traffic lights on the ground in Seoul

Traffic lights on the ground in Seoul

In the aftermath of the Itaewon massacre, more than a few people have presented individualistic self-absorption as a supposedly characteristic feature of Korean culture that would have been proven by the installation of traffic lights on the sidewalks of Seoul to reduce accidents in a city where everyone is looking at their cell phone. They don't seem to remember that at the time the issue went viral in the US because the smombie (the smartphone user who walks around like a zombie) is by no means a local phenomenon, but an almost universal archetype.

But it is even more complicated. And it relates to the smombie phenomenon, which on the other hand, is by no means a Korean peculiarity.

A crowded urban structure, with space always in short supply, not only reduces the critical number beyond which avalanches are possible for purely physical reasons, it also modifies the behavior - and thus the socially accepted morality - of people in public space.

Seoul is also no different in this respect from New York, Paris or Hong Kong. The unsustainability of the capitalist macro-city model also affects the culture and morals accepted in urban behavior.

Outside observers of life in Seoul, like those in Paris, New York and all major capitals, regularly point out that the famous coldness and individualistic self-absorption of Seoul residents, universally disinclined to pay attention to anyone or even notice them, is "the result of living in an environment that is continually crowded.

The stress, the discomfort typical of an encounter in an elevator with strangers is multiplied ad infinitum every time we step onto the street in a big city. The common response is a kind of defensive individualism. It doesn't matter whether it's a book or a cell phone screen, looking at the ground or reading the signs through the bus window: we'll seek any refuge for our eyesight by turning it inwards.

Of course, this self-absorption is reproduced in a particularly dangerous context with certain cultural consumptions which, even though they take place in mass gatherings, are not collective but individual: religious pilgrimages, rallies or concerts of charismatic figures who seem to sing/speak for us, etc.

And paradoxically, it is this whole environment of stress, flighty glances and artificial shelters, which turns the feeling of comfort in standing shoulder to shoulder to people in a crowd into a liberating and welcoming one, reducing the threshold at which individuals surrender to the flow of the crowd and stop thinking about the whole that surrounds them. This is how individualism becomes herd behavior and the members of a group in movement lose the capacity to react in order to obtain escape routes.

This is why the big city, like the spectacles of the queues at the sales, religious contexts or certain cultural consumptions that are carried out en masse but not collectively, reduce the critical threshold at which disasters occur. Individualism and alienation, take their toll.

What can we learn from this disaster?

  • Avalanches and stampedes are a characteristic product of capitalist society.
  • Two factors converge to make them increasingly frequent and deadly: the overcrowding of cities and public spaces, and the spread of an individualistic culture driven by its own saturation.
  • The deadly herd behavior of avalanches and "smombies" are the direct products of the "defensive" individualism that arises from making us live in crowded, depersonalized environments with their inevitable and constant "low intensity" violence.
  • Individualized cultural consumption in mass contexts (concerts, pilgrimages, sales, etc.) is especially dangerous. Individualism and alienation kill.