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Who Killed Jdimytai Damour?—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on December 2, 2008.

Who Killed Jdimytai Damour?
By Ian Ayres ’86

Like many others, I’ve had a difficult time during this Thanksgiving weekend to get my mind around the tragic trampling of Wal-Mart employee Jdimytai Damour. Did people keep shopping? Did the Valley Stream store make any sales before the police closed it down? Who put up the sign outside the store saying “Blitz Line Starts Here”?

The president of a union that has been trying to organize that Wal-Mart questioned the lack of adequate barriers and security precautions. But Wal-Mart’s low prices and its loss leaders might have been a but-for cause of the tragedy:

As part of its Black Friday promotion, Wal-Mart had advertised sales like a Polaroid 42-inch LCD HDTV for $598 . . .

The Wal-Mart online catalog lists what looks like the same product on clearance for $750. If Wal-Mart had advertised its regular $798 price for this TV, Jdimytai Damour might still be alive.

People started lining up at the Valley Stream store at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. Some people were there because Black Friday has become a free-standing holiday tradition. There’s a certain esprit de corps to standing in line with your fellow shoppers. (I confess I do not share this feeling: Years ago when our first child was born, my beloved spouse took me to a 10 percent-off layette sale at a local store. The store was so mobbed and unpleasant that it hit me I’d prefer to go to a 10 percent-on sale to reduce the crushing throng and the cutthroat competition.) But other shoppers get out of bed early the day after Thanksgiving because of special early-bird prices. When we don’t ration scarce goods by price, Econ 101 says they will be rationed by having people queue.

To say that the low prices were a but-for cause of this man’s death is not to say that Wal-Mart should be legally or morally culpable for low prices. Indeed, there may be so many contributing causes to this tragedy that it is difficult to assign individual blame.

I’m particularly troubled by reports that police are thinking about charging individual members of the crowd. When people behind you start pushing you forward, there is often nothing you can do. And there’s a real fear that if you try to resist, you too will be trampled. Part of the tragedy is that there are undoubtedly people in that crowd who know they stepped on something that day, or who, in their excitement, spurred on the surge. These thoughts may haunt them for many years.

This is not an example of the wisdom of crowds.

This death and its multiple economic causes reminded me of the Bob Dylan song “Who Killed Davey Moore?” It’s about a boxer who died of injuries from a fight in 1963:

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not I,” says the referee,
“Don’t point your finger at me.
I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
An’ maybe kept him from his fate,
But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure,
At not gettin’ their money’s worth.
It’s too bad he had to go,
But there was a pressure on me too, you know.
It wasn’t me that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame me at all.”

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not us,” says the angry crowd,
Whose screams filled the arena loud.
“It’s too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight.
We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death,
We just meant to see some sweat,
There ain’t nothing wrong in that.
It wasn’t us that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame us at all.”

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says his manager,
Puffing on a big cigar.
“It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell,
I always thought that he was well.
It’s too bad for his wife an’ kids he’s dead,
But if he was sick, he should’ve said.
It wasn’t me that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame me at all.”

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the gambling man,
With his ticket stub still in his hand.
“It wasn’t me that knocked him down,
My hands never touched him none.
I didn’t commit no ugly sin,
Anyway, I put money on him to win.
It wasn’t me that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame me at all.”

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the boxing writer,
Pounding print on his old typewriter,
Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame,
There’s just as much danger in a football game.”
Sayin’, “Fist fighting is here to stay,
It’s just the old American way.
It wasn’t me that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame me at all.”

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the man whose fists
Laid him low in a cloud of mist,
Who came here from Cuba’s door
Where boxing ain’t allowed no more.
“I hit him, yes, it’s true,
But that’s what I am paid to do.
Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill.’
It was destiny, it was God’s will.”

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?