Some thoughts on the Itaewon tragedy – As you may already know, there was a horrible accident in Itaewon over the weekend that left about 150 dead and another 100 injured. These were primarily young people—people in their late teens and early twenties—who were in the neighborhood for a massive Halloween celebration. For those of you familiar with the area, the accident happened, as best as I can glean from reports, in the narrow alley next to the Hamilton Hotel leading up from the main street. I’ve walked up and down that alley many a time, and I can’t imagine 250 people (or more!) being crammed into that tiny space.
Reports indicate that people began pushing from the back of the crowd, causing those in front of them to fall and be crushed to death. I heard the news on Sunday morning and honestly spent most of the rest of the day in shock. I kept thinking about my students, knowing that at least some of them would have been there, and it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Statistically, it was unlikely that any of my students would be among the victims, but that is cold comfort when you don’t know. Most of my students were in class today, and of those who were absent, I have heard from a few letting me know that they are OK. I still haven’t heard from a few students, but as far as I know all the casualties are known and accounted for, so I’m taking the fact that I haven’t heard anything from the school yet as a good sign.
A tragedy of such magnitude can be hard to fathom; how could so many people be crushed to death? Well, if you’ve ever been in a large crowd, you know how easily things can go wrong. When you’re in a crowd, your individual actions don’t really matter that much—and the more people are crammed into a given space, the less your actions matter. I remember once being on a subway car here that was crammed so full of people that I genuinely felt like I was going to suffocate. You think you’ll be able to create your own little space, at least enough space to breathe, but in the press of bodies all of that goes out the window. There were so many people in that confined car that I couldn’t actually fall down, but I also couldn’t move at all. When the crowd moved one way due to the momentum of the train, I moved along with it. In the end, you’re nothing more than a domino, and when the chain reaction begins you’re just along for the ride.
I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about how terrified those young people must have been as the crowd collapsed on them like a tidal wave, knowing that they were absolutely powerless to save themselves. Yes, I cried. Whether my students were among the victims or not, it was a horrible tragedy, and no one deserves to die like that—especially young people who should have otherwise had their whole lives ahead of them.
In the wake of such a tragedy, there will inevitably be a conversation about what could have been done to prevent it. It is perhaps also inevitable that people will want to assign blame. Both of these impulses come from the same place: We don’t want to think that a tragedy of this magnitude could be meaningless. Knowing that something could have been done to prevent it gives us hope that we might be able to avoid similar tragedies in the future, that we might be able to learn something from the tragedy, as horrible as it was, that will make us better as a society. And having someone to blame allows us to direct our sadness and anger at a particular individual or institution.
One of these conversations is worth having, but the other is not, in my opinion. That is, I think we can and should talk about what could have been done to prevent this tragedy (and thus avoid future tragedies), but trying to assign blame here is a fool’s game. Assigning blame obscures the complexity of the situation and the myriad factors that led to the tragic result, making a true understanding of things impossible.
There is one thing that I think needs to be clarified right away: The particular circumstances of the incident are of secondary importance at best to understanding the tragedy. More specifically, the facts that this was 1) a Halloween celebration 2) taking place in Itaewon 3) attended primarily by young people are not central to what happened. I’ve been in other large-crowd situations (watching a match during the 2002 World Cup on a big screen near City Hall comes to mind, as does standing out in the cold downtown waiting for the New Year bell to ring), but I’ve emerged unscathed because that first domino never fell. The fact that the domino fell this weekend has nothing to do with the factors I just listed. The truth is that the circumstances were just right—or, in this case, just wrong—and a confluence of unpredictable factors were enough to set the domino in motion. In other words, it was just “bad luck.” The people who were killed or injured were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Could they have seen that the situation was dangerous and decided to remove themselves from it? Perhaps—and indeed many people did. But it’s also likely that, by the time the victims realized the danger, it was already too late. It is easy to say after the fact that they should have just avoided the area entirely, that they should have exercised some common sense, but on the ground it might not be so easy to make those decisions. Are the victims to be blamed for wanting to have some fun, for wanting to join a celebration and be caught up in the party? We know that crowds can be dangerous, but there is also something electric about being in a crowd united in one purpose. I mentioned the 2002 World Cup above; while that was certainly stifling at times, it was also incredibly exciting. In ways both good and bad, a crowd is greater than the sum of its parts, and when it is good it can elevate you above your own individuality. Now, that might not be your cup of tea—and, to be honest, at my age now it’s not my cup of tea, either—but these young people should not be demonized for enjoying being part of that environment and getting carried away by that atmosphere.
So if the young people are not to blame, who is? I’ve already said that I think these questions are counterproductive, but I do want to address them to show why I think they are counterproductive. There are those who have said that the government should have done more to ensure the safety of the people at the festivities (there are also those who are calling for President Yun to resign, but these are bad-faith actors attempting to use the tragedy for political ends). What exactly could the government have done, though? This was not an official “festival” sponsored by the city. So what exactly was it? The simple answer is that it was a spontaneous Halloween celebration, but if I can put on my folklorist’s hat for a moment I’d like to offer a more nuanced explanation.
We know that Halloween goes back centuries, although there is no universal consensus about its origins. What I think we can say is that Halloween in the West has long been connected with liminal and transgressive states. Put more plainly, it has been thought to be a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is especially porous. In modern times it has been an opportunity to dress up and pretend that you are someone you are not, as well as a night to engage in other, more transgressive activities. I’ll be honest: I was never a terribly big fan of Halloween when I was young for precisely this reason. For me, especially in my later teen years, Halloween meant having to defend our house from neighborhood troublemakers armed with eggs and shaving cream. But I understand the appeal of a lot of the customs that have sprung up around the modern holiday.
Korea, however, does not have a tradition of Halloween; the holiday was introduced at some point in the past couple of decades, I suspect by private educators catering to children. Children here do not go from house to house trick-or-treating, but the practice of dressing up has become popular. Mostly, though, it is seen as an opportunity to party. How did Itaewon come to host the biggest of these unofficial celebrations? That’s easy: Itaewon is already a popular destination for revelers, but the celebrations were encouraged by local businesses as a way of attracting customers. So while Halloween in the West may have started out somewhat more organically, in Korea it has always been a combination of institutional motivations and vernacular expression.
Keep in mind that when I say “institutional” here, I am referring to commercial interests, as opposed to non-commercial, spontaneous vernacular celebrations. I could go into more detail here on the relationship between the institutional and the vernacular, but that would distract from what I really want to talk about here. Suffice it to say that there is no governmental body behind these celebrations, so there is not much that the Seoul city government could have done.
I suppose the question that naturally follows from this—a question that my brother B asked when we were talking about the tragedy—is whether these celebrations should be held under the auspices of the city government. My opinion on this is simple:No, this should not be a government-sponsored festival. Why? Well, because basically it is just a large group of young people out wanting to have a little fun. Nothing would kill the buzz quicker than having the mayor of Seoul come out and make a speech before the festivities can kick off. Does this mean I think we should do nothing? No, not at all. The police need to be empowered to intervene if they feel that a situation is getting dangerous. You may be surprised to learn that the police in Korea, under current law, can’t actually intervene in a situation like this unless there is some immediate and direct threat to public safety (say, for example, a riotous mob). I wouldn’t say I am a proponent of absolute police power, but the Korean police are largely toothless, and it wouldn’t hurt to give them the power to prevent further tragedies like this. You can still have free celebrations, but if the police see that crowds are in danger of becoming too dense and unmanageable, they can block off roads or use other passive means of crowd control. (I specify “passive” here because Korean riot police are experts in active means of crowd control such as tear gas and high-pressure hoses; obviously, riot police should definitely not be deployed and active crowd control measures should not be used in situations like this).
The bottom line is that there are things we can do to minimize the risk of something like this happening again, and there are measures that individuals can take (and which many individuals in this situation did indeed take, as I mentioned above) to avoid such dangerous situations. But I also think young people should be able to go out and party if they want. I’ll even go so ar as to say that I think young people should be able to do stupid and irresponsible things (within reason) without dying at the very least, and without people acting like the youth generation are the doom of humanity. I did plenty of stupid and irresponsible things when I was young, and I was fortunate enough to survive all of them. As a result, I learned, I grew, and I gained wisdom. I became the person I am today. We should let young people like my students have those same opportunities without scolding them and without blaming them for tragedies like this.
(Addendum, 2022.11.1: And this is why I generally take the time to make sure I am saying what I want to say rather than rushing something out. I did not mean to say here that going to Itaewon on Halloween was stupid or irresponsible, but that I did things that were far more foolish in my youth. I think wanting to go out to Itaewon when there is a big celebration going on is perfectly normal. Would I want to do it? Not in a million years. But I’m an old fart. The point I was trying to make was that we all do things when we are young that our elders deem foolish. Some of those things even go beyond mere foolishness into recklessness. But most of us don’t gain wisdom by sitting under a tree and meditating; we gain it by learning from our mistakes. These young people should have had that same opportunity, but they got unlucky. That’s all it is.)
That seems like a good note on which to wrap up today’s entry, but I want to mention one more thing before I do that. When I was talking about this with B yesterday, he mentioned that he read there were some guys shouting “Push, push!” that led to the crowd surge. Well, I heard earlier today that they used CCTV footage to identify one young man who shouted this, and that he has been found. It would not surprise me at all if the blame-assigners latched onto this young man as the cause of the tragedy—in fact, I would be surprised if they didn’t. But I think this would be a grave mistake. Should the young man have shouted for the crowd to push? Obviously not. But can we really lay the blame for all of this at his feet? It seems incredibly simplistic and naive to assume that his actions alone were responsible for the tragedy. You might argue that this is similar to the free speech exception of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, but that is a flawed analogy. Shouting “Fire!” has an immediate and understandable psychological effect on the people in the theater—namely, they panic and likely stampede. Had the young man in Itaewon shouted something similarly panic-inducing, I could see holding him at least partly responsible. But does shouting “Push!” necessarily lead to a crowd surge? Would everyone in earshot be compelled to listen to him? Even if he did push himself, it is unlikely that he was alone in doing so. As I said above, when you are in a crowd that dense, you have limited control over the situation. Most likely, the crowd was pushing already, and it just reached a tipping point. But I wasn’t there, and I’m not a legal expert, so I don’t know what fate awaits this young man; I simply fear that there may be an overreaction as the nation looks for a culprit they can pin this on.
And with that I will bring my thoughts to a close. I’m doing something rather unusual with today’s entry, in that I am writing and posting it on the same day—indeed, I am posting it within a couple of hours of the start of writing. I generally post “Notes” on the same day they are written, but I almost never post a normal (longer) journal entry on the same day (if you were wondering about the difference between “Notes” and regular journal entries, that is it). As such, my thoughts may be a bit of a jumble. I also did not look up sources for a lot of the things that I heard about on the news, as this would have added significantly to the time required to prepare this. Had I gone through my usual process, I probably could have said more, and in a more coherent fashion, but I decided that it was more important to work through my thoughts and feelings on this and get them down. This tragedy has affected me in a way that I did not expect, and today’s entry has been my way of dealing with it, at least in part. So I hope you will pardon the mess.