Death by Shoppers -- Haunted by Wal-Mart

It's almost Christmas, but Thanksgiving still haunts me. Let me explain by way of a detour. You see, I've always been afraid of being eaten alive by a wild animal. My heart always goes out to the surfer who is chomped to bits by a shark in the California surf, or to the golfer in Florida who is found inside a crocodile near the 13th hole. I cringe at the thought of getting chewed by a tiger, or being wrung and then ingested by a boa constrictor. It's not so much the pain. It's the humiliation.

To be mere feed for a lower form of life, I mean, what could be a more terrible end? Imagine, all emotionally tangled and intellectually complex you being ingloriously masticated by a slithering lizard who didn't have to sweat it out in college, not to mention pay off student loans. I'm fully aware that wild animals don't eat us with malice; they don't even see us as "superior" beings. They just size us up for strength and ability to fight back, and then they make their dinner decision. Stay with me, I'll get to Thanksgiving.

So I thought nothing could be more horrible than death by wild fauna. That is, until last Thanksgiving, when we all came face to face with death by shoppers. A stampeding herd of customers trampled to death a Wal-Mart employee in Valley Stream, New York, on Black Friday. They tore the doors off the hinges and went for broke, at the worker's expense. This is really what has been bugging me.

That young man wasn't killed for food. He wasn't prey. He just couldn't get out fast enough from the path of voracious consumers who were rushing to get their hands on Bissel Compact Upright Vacuums on sale for a low, low price of $28, or men's Wrangler Tough Jeans for only $8. The Wal-Mart worker ceased to exist as a human being. To the blinded throng he was nothing more than an inconvenient barrier to the Samsung 50-inch plasma HDTVs.

To be eaten by wild animals at least serves a purpose. It's for the physical sustenance of another form of life, which is a reasonable explanation for why a golfer would end up inside a crocodile. But to perish by the feet of shoppers is just a shocking waste of life, so unusual as to be unimaginable. No rationalizing is acceptable. The ravenous shoppers did not rampage out of patriotic duty; they weren't selflessly trying to buoy the sinking economy, nor were they deliberately striking back at terrorists with their charge cards. They were a transformed into a crazed herd, it turns out, by a basic animal drive gone amok.

Yes, folks. Ardent shopping, be it by a single shopaholic or an unruly mob, has a solid biological basis. Scientists at Stanford University studying our "brains on bargains" found that the compulsion to shop has less to do with the law of supply and demand or the dynamics of discounting and advertising, than with the synapses of pleasure.

The scientists used a technique called functional MRI, or scanning brains in action, to find out what happens to our gray matter when we think about a product beckoning from a shelf. Magnetic resonance imaging reveals that the flow of oxygen-rich blood increases to an area called the nucleus accumbens. It's a part of the brain especially receptive to dopamine, a chemical that detonates desire. That's what brings on shopping states of mind such as anticipation at Neiman Marcus, or giddiness over the Blahniks. The same brain chemical that induces us to go shopping also triggers our craving for sex. L-u-s-t.

No wonder many marketers insist on using erotic imagery in their ads. Think Calvin Klein or Abercrombie & Fitch -- are you buying the perfume or the cleavage, the hip-hugger or the bulging crotch? Leafing through a Macy's brochure or a Crate and Barrel catalog, therefore, is just like perusing Hustler or Playboy (which, by the way, I get just for the articles). It's consumer porn, and we've all indulged in it innocently enough, in fact, from a very early age.

Remember when as kids we were introduced to the pleasures of window-shopping? We often couldn't really afford the stuff we ogled, but just imagining having it brought delight. Now science proves that those memorable family outings downtown were essentially peep shows, done right out in the open with our parents by our side, and Santa and the baby Jesus in the display windows.

Such mental conditioning, in its myriad forms, has ceaselessly taken place in every modern society from cradle to grave, to the point that countless human beings have begun to define themselves by their ability to shop for less. Brought to an extreme, this consumer pathology led straight to the tragedy at Wal-Mart. To paraphrase the late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, working was what we were all about as a nation, shopping is what we have become. Our total credit card debt now amounts to $915 billion.

Perhaps we need a big public health campaign to start curbing uncontrolled shopping ads on television, an maybe even rehab for shopaholics and inveterate impulse buyers. And we may need it quick. Before they kill again.

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