Fire, Panic and Crowds



Crowds and fire; darkness and panic: they are the currency of these weird times as Pentagon divulges its plan to “shock and awe” the people of Baghdad with a 48-hour barrage of missiles. Two weekends ago we had the unity of vast crowds asserting life; and then, a few days later, we saw the crowd in the guise of panic-stricken throngs, in Chicago and Rhode Island, crushing each other to death and being burned.

At the start of the 1960s, another high decade for crowds, fire and war Elias Canetti published his eerie, eccentric book, Crowds and Power. It has a brilliant opening passage how a man feels amid the panic of a burning theater: “The people he pushes away are like burning objects to him Fire, as a symbol for the crowd, has entered the whole economy of man’s feelings and become an immutable part of it. That emphatic trampling on people, so often observed in panics and apparently so senseless, is nothing but the stamping out of fire.”

Amid newscasts switching between newscasts from Rhode Island of the charred club and Bush calling on Saddam to lay down his arms, pending attack, can any decently sensitive person not imagine Baghdad or Basra once the missiles start to fall, and anticipate dreadful episodes like the careful targeting of the al mariya shelter. because as one Pentagon man told the press, they wanted to alert Saddam’s elite that their wives and children weren’t safe.

Actually, the elites had left Baghdad and the poor women and children were in the shelter when the US missile penetrated the reinforced concrete roof and killed them.

This brings us to the consoling topic of luck: the mother who missed her chance to get to the shelter; the fellow who left the nightclub five minutes earlier. At some level we pay hopeful respect to the whims of providence.

But in the bigger picture accidents turn into certainties. Back in 1998 Deborah and Roderick Wallace published A Plague on Your Houses, (Verso) a carefully researched book about how, in the 1970s era of “planned shrinkage”, social engineers, some of them mustered in the Rand Corporation Fire Project, supervised the deliberate degradation of fire control resources, in areas the engineers of shrinkage had slated for clearance.

About ten per cent of New York’s fire companies were eliminated, manpower cut back, emergency response systems whittled down. After the inevitable fire epidemic, there was an equally inevitable epidemic of housing abandonment by landlords. Poor neighborhoods collapsed. When the dust settled, the Wallaces calculate that about two million poor people had been uprooted.

Those strategists of urban destruction were never rushed into the pillory, the way Kyles or Rowe were. True, they were exposed by the Wallaces, but that was many years later.

Maybe, many years later, there’ll be a definitive account of why the Twin Towers fell as rapidly as they did. As things stand, one can find accounts that it was design incompetence and cost cutting, married to the desire to maximize rentable space. Go to the scieneering.com website and you’ll find a compelling account of the extreme vulnerability of the panels and square tubes.

Here’s how the Science Engineering essay concludes: “Weak floor-to-wall connections and missing connections between segments of the exterior wall columns contributed significantly to the collapse of the World Trade Towers. If these defects were not present, the collapse of the towers might have been prevented or delayed. However, the aircraft would still have penetrated into the core, and the ensuing fire would have trapped the occupants above the crash zone.”

In other words, the odds were bad from the very start.

There are some sure things in the gamble called Life. Among them the following:

Unless they’re so down on their luck that the barman is playing solitaire, nightclubs are by definition unsafe. You want to play by the odds, stay home and read Tolstoy.

In the event of panic or fire your chances are going to be less than 50/50. Drunken revelers don’t tend to stand at attention singing Nearer My God to Thee, while the women proceed at an orderly pace to the Exits.

There are other certainties: that the club’s promoters will have secured their liquor license, immunity from complaints by the neighbors etc, by dint of bribery and political clout. Duane Kyles, owner of E2, the Chicago club where 21 died last week, had the Jackson family, Jesse and Jesse Jr, going to bat for him. It was a busy week for Reverend, since he also assigned himself the task of comforting the survivors and the bereaved. Jesse’s shuttle was too much for one Chicago city council member, Madeline Haithcock, who called him a hypocrite: “He’s with the victims one minute holding prayer vigils … and with his friends the next. That’s him. That’s the role he plays. He likes to get in the papers.”

True. All politicians do. Back in the fall of 1991, there was a fire in the Imperial chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina that killed 25 workers, mostly women on minimum wage.

Jackson rushed to Hamlet, bible in hand. This being North Carolina and not the South Loop of Chicago, there was no likelihood of Imperial being owned by a Brother. There was an authentic villain in the form of plant owner Emmett Rowe who had suspected the workers of stealing chicken and locked or blocked doors. Rowe got sentenced to 19 years, 11 months, but was let out after serving four.

Son House, Alan Lomax and Who Exactly Owns What In the Library of Congress?

This just in from the great blues photographer and producer Dick Waterman, Oxford, Mississippi, who took in blues great Son House and so many other pioneers of the Delta Blues.

I had a call from Son House’s daughter this morning. I usually only hear from her after she has received the semiannual check that she gets for Mister House’s royalties. The checks are not large but they come steadily (since I placed his catalog with Bug Music) and the money is always needed.

She called because she and her husband were in a bookstore and had noticed two CDs by Mister House that they had never seen before. The first was “Son House” Revisited” on Fuel 2000. I explained that two bootlegs that we had previously discussed (“Oberlin College” and “The Gaslite, 1965”) were now reissued legally by Fuel 2000 and that both artist and writer’s royalties were going to be paid on that. Then she mentioned “The Complete Library of Congress Recordings” which apparently she had never seen before. I told her that this was the material that Alan Lomax had recorded in Mississippi back in the 1940s when he was field recording for the Library on Congress. I told her that some of the material had been out in LP format back in the 1960s and that it had come forth in CD format on Biograph and other labels.

Her husband came on the line and said that material recorded by the Library on Congress should belong to “everybody” and record companies should not have access to that material to make a profit without acknowledging Mister House in any way.

I told them that I had pursued this matter for almost 40 years myself, and I kept getting the response that it would take my money in lawyers to get a response than the legal outcome would bring forth. That wasn’t much of an answer to give them, so I thought that I would put this question in a public forum. Just what right does a record company have to commercially release material from the Library of Congress without any permission from the artist or the estate? Did Alan Lomax have the legal right to make a 100 CD deal with Rounder Records for releasing material that he had recorded while working for the Library on Congress? I hope that someone can give me the answer to the question that Mister House’s family asked me today.

Dick Waterman Oxford, MS


The Political, the Personal, and the Purely Priggish

Maria Gatti From Montreal Writes:

Dear Mr McCarthy, dear friends at CounterPunch

I enjoyed Jack McCarthy’s pithy, admittedly ad hominem comments about Christopher Hitchens making a pompous, drunken arse out of himself. However I’d enjoy them more if they appeared in the press in Britain or in continental Europe. Moralising about folks’ personal habits is deeply ingrained in US culture, even on the left. An Irish friend of mine, who has lived for many years in France, almost started a commotion by ordering wine with her meal at a party in the States, despite the presence of a chemical-laden frosted cake from a mix, “food” such as chicken nuggets, and so forth. I find such “Thou shalt not” moralizing even more frightening than substance abuse, although I have worked in Northern Native reserves here and have certainly observed the damage caused by the latter. John Calvin and his Islamic counterpart Khomenei are pretty scary fellows…

yours from Montréal


Hi Maria, What you say about us is not entirely true about left culture. We’ve had several distressed letters about our “personal” attacks on Hitchens as though it is somehow out of place for the left to say anything rude about a guy who has been viciously rude, often at a personal level, about leftists in general. In other words our moralizing, relished by many, still evokes a priggish reaction here.

As for personal habits, there’s a truth to what you so, but so what. There’s a useful side to moralizing too. I’m Irish and grew up watching the men sit, often silently, in pubs without their wives mostly from 6ypm till closing time, sloshing through life on Guinness. Not very attractive and no fun at all for the wife, assuming she wanted to see his Nibs at all.

As an ex-smoker of professional skills (3 packs a day from 16 to 40) I can confess to perfectly respectable dislike of 6 Britons or French or Irish at the restaurant table puffing away.

The “priggishly” personal is political at many levels as the women’s movement said so forcefully in the late 60s amid many shrieks from the men folk about “putting the revolution first”. As for the reproofs of your friend drinking wine, yes that is silly. I’ve never seen it happen. Maybe the company at her table was up in arms about sulfites, or conditions in the vineyards, though I doubt it. They sound foolish. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been in their company, and louchely taken herself off.

Point about Hitchens was that there was something truly newsworthy about the levels of deception and self-deception in that Vanity Fair piece. He went public about his personal traits, but deceptively so. And as I’ve said, I do think his gargantuan levels of drinking affect his journalism, and his grip on the truth and that’s a public issue too.

Best, Alex Cockburn


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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