12 January 2006

Another Year, Another Deadly Hajj Stampede

One of the five most important religious duties of a Muslim with the means to do so is to make the Hajj, which a trip to the holy sites of Islam, at least once in a lifetime. Once you've done it, you even add an honorific to your name. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world. As calling up a travel agent and going on a trip is not the most onerous religous duty ever imposed these days, the faithful, because they want to be good Muslims and live up to societal expectations, comply in large numbers. Millions have done so. This causes immense crowding at the religiously important time of year in Mecca and its vicinity, and the results are often tragic. This year was no exception.

There was a stampede. But, God is a bigger draw than a rock band. So, unlike "The Who" concert stampede in Cincinnati, Ohio, which killed about half a dozen people when I was growing up, this stampede killed a lot of people. Mass tragedies happen with some regularity on the Hajj, usually around this time of year, although this was one of the worst. The tally from this stampede is currently 345 dead and 289 injured, and a few more of the injured will probably die in the near future.

It isn't that the Saudi Arabian government, which controls the site, wasn't trying to prevent this kind of thing from happening to the extent possible consistent with religious tradition, but their plans were clearly not sufficient to solve the problem, which boils down to insufficiently well engineered pedestrian walkways and insufficiently well executed crowd control measures.

The stampede, like others in the past, happened during the stone-throwing ritual in which the pilgrims stone a symbolic devil.

Saudi authorities had replaced the pillar, which had represented the devil in the past, with an oval wall with padding around the edges to protect the crush of pilgrims.

Saudi officials had also installed cameras and dispatched about 60,000 security personnel to monitor the crowds.

The interior ministry said Thursday's trampling occurred when the pilgrims bottlenecked at the eastern edge of the bridge [Ed. as wide as an eight lane highway] leading to the oval wall. Many pilgrims brought their luggage, which caused further crowding.

Last week 76 other pilgrims were killed when a hotel collapsed. The worst tragedy in the history of the Hajj killed 1,426 people in a 1990 stampede.

It is hard to know what to feel about an event like this one. One can understand the mourning of the families of those who perished and the agony of those who were hurt. One can understand the frustration of the Saudi officials who failed again in their duties, and the rage of the survivors at the Saudi's inability to stop a foreseeable tragedy. But, from here in Denver, I am also well aware that there is truly nothing at all that I can do to make it better in the future, and very little that I can do to mitigate the harm that has been done.

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