Mecca, the BBC, and Schadenfreude
It is always sad to hear of a tragedy, and more so when it happens at an auspicious occasion like the pilgrimage to Mecca. The final sentences of a BBC online report entitled Mecca disaster toll rises to 76 struck me as that typically laden mix of fact and polemics so characteristic of the BBC, almost containing a glee that something had gone wrong at Islam’s holiest site:
“Deadly stampedes are relatively common. They killed 251 people in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.”
BBC statisticians missed one stampede in 1997 killing 217 people, but they still fail to explain how three events in fifteen years make the occurrences “relatively common”. I was there in 1990. The stampede was caused by the air turbines failing in a walkway tunnel and people trying to make a fast exit to avoid suffocation. The one in 1997 was due to a fire. Only the on in 2004 was due to crowd behaviour as such.
I have criticised the Saudi authorities in the past for certain aspects of Hajj management, but when things are put into perspective they’re doing a great job. The Hajj takes place every year with in excess of four million pilgrims. In the Hillborough disaster in Sheffield 96 people were crushed to death, and in the Heysel stadium disaster in Liverpool 36. Taking a lead from the BBC, you could say football stadium stampedes are relatively common in the UK and, bearing in mind that stadiums are only attended by tens of thousands of fans at most, are also particularly deadly.
The collapse of the pilgrims’ hostel in Mecca does not constitute the first ever engineering disaster in human history either – only last week an ice rink collapsed in Bavaria, Germany, killing 15, and 12 miners died in a Virginia coal mine in a tragedy which probably earned a place of notoriety for poor disaster management straight after the dreadful handling of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and flooding in New Orleans. I challenge the BBC to point to any other event where millions of people do not only attend a single show but spend several days in the same location, travelling simultaneously from one place to another, participating in the same rituals, yet with hardly ever an incident worth mentioning. If the crowds at Mecca were British football supporters instead of devoted Muslim pilgrims, it would be a scene of disaster year in and year out.
For the benefit of BBC statisticians, here are a few other figures to put things into perspective, taken from the “land of the free”, the USA:
In any one year 27,000 Americans commit suicide, 26,000 die from fatal accidents at home, 23,000 are murdered, 85,000 are wounded by firearms (38,000 of whom subsequently die from the injuries), and more than 5,000 die from illicit drug use. 45,000 are killed in car accidents, 10,000 die during unnecessary surgical operations, 180,000 die from adverse reactions to medical treatment. These are only some of the death statistics. I won’t add those of other serious “mishaps” (e.g. the 700,000 women raped every year in the USA, one every 45 seconds) or this posting would be running into several pages.
Therefore, if you’re planning to pay a visit to Mecca, don’t be put off by biased BBC reporting. It is infinitely safer than going to, for example, New York.