Tragedy at Mecca: Why Do Some Show Cruelty Instead of Empathy?

Over 700 pilgrims were killed by a stampede en route to Mecca. Why do some choose to celebrate such tragedies? 

Every morning I rise an hour before I need to head to the gym. Ten to 15 minutes of Qigong; head to the kitchen; flip the electric teakettle; our three furry roommates circling my feet in anticipation. Ground beans; pour water into Aeropress; stir, empty into mug. Reveal the raw meat; enough space between felines so the stalker leaves the other two alone. I sit with my coffee on the balcony; crack open a book — dedicating a half-hour to waking up slowly.

There’s nothing unique about my morning ritual. It probably differs from yours in content, but not in the fact that we all have a way to prepare for the day. I won’t subject you to my evening or pre-class rituals. While the word ‘ritual’ is often reserved for religious occasions, events practicing this or that spiritual option are merely personal rituals played out publicly. We love the dependability of patterns. We lean on the expectable, recoiling in its absence.

Much human suffering and bigotry begins when one’s ritual differs from our own. For example, I’ve never understood those who jump from sleep to rush out the door. I need that hour to wake with the sun; much stress is invoked when rushed. Yet late sleepers argue that they value that extra hour more than an easeful morning. We might tilt our heads at the different approaches, but we can also respect the other’s decision. 

When a person of faith dehumanizes those that believe in another, it displays the competitive nature of human thinking.

Morning rituals are benign in this sense. When translated to religion, another story unfolds. We can debate whether it’s the media focused on outliers or a genuine growing intolerance, but that doesn’t change the fact that my social media feeds are lately inundated by disrespect and a complete lack of basic human kindness when one’s ritual differs from another’s.

Last week my feed was filled with the stampede in Mina, in which over 700 Muslims were killed en route to Mecca. This annual pilgrimage is a time in Islam for community and unity — the Hajj is one of the planet’s most well-known religious gatherings, dwarfed in size perhaps only by India’s Kumbh Mela. To contemplate congregants trampling over one another just three miles shy of their destination is tragic.

Mostly I read these thoughts: heartbreaking, confusion, sadness. I don’t believe the majority of humans are bigots. Scrolling through Facebook Trending, though, other opinions rear their ugly head: 

Steve Reichert: Religion- Causing death and destruction world wide since its inception

Followed by his "fans": 

Fuck 'em. The Saudis would be chopping off their heads or stoning them anyway in their public executions that the media doesn't tell you about. It's funny, the Saudis do it, but they're a US ally. ISIS does it and they are the enemy. This is government hypocrisy at its finest. Me, I just hate all Muslims. I don't discriminate.

You all are missing the point. This is an ANNUAL event. It should become WEEKLY!

Gotta admit, that's 700 less to worry about

Reichert is a pro-gun advocate who likes to "piss off liberals." Can’t claim surprise at his commentary, or those following him. I’ve spared sharing the Fox News feed as comments there were even crueler. That these were 700 humans means nothing, because in their eyes Muslims were long ago dehumanized. Yet atheists also jumped on the bandwagon; on the Kansas City Atheists Coalition page, the following remarks emerged:

not too much in the grand scheme of things but ugh, praise be allah for that shit right!?!?!?!?

kinda like the running of the bulls in pampalona

Ignorance and lack of sensitivity come in many forms. When a person of faith dehumanizes those that believe in another, it displays the competitive nature of human thinking; if my way is right, yours is irrelevant, therefore whatever I say about you is not harmful. A person of no faith may feel justified in denouncing all of them. What’s missing in both situations is empathy.

My ritual, good. Yours, who cares?

That is, sadly, where we end up when such sentiments are on public display. There is plenty of room for both critical thinking and open-mindedness. Rituals are important regardless of what you believe. We all have personal means of taking on life, habits, neurological patterns, ways of perceiving the world. We might not agree with the content of one’s beliefs, but to deny their humanity is immature. And this is not to deny the fact that we should critique ideologies that damage others, flagrant abuses of power, and hypocrites. Call such figures out, but don’t rob innocent pilgrims of their humanness.

On the same day as the tragedy in Mina, Pope Francis stood before Congress discussing climate change, pro-immigration policies, and poverty. Each of these topics can be measured socially, politically, and economically. Also on the table is his take on the "family" — the man has supported tolerance regarding gay marriage, less so on abortion, but these too have human and social costs. 

When pilgrims tragically die while searching for meaning in life, it should give us pause to remember our own struggle...

There is a healthy way to critique religious ideals: At the same time Francis is touring America, his Church has been sending American church leaders accused of sexual abuse to South America instead of permanently removing them from service. You can’t yearn for the "family" when your leaders are helping break them apart.

This is not a bashing of his character or even a hit on Catholicism; it’s an inquiry regarding a shady administration. When Pope Francis conducts Mass or visits the homeless, we can recognize and respect the good will he’s spreading. We don’t have to agree with everything he says to understand his relevance. Publicly denouncing his rituals merely reveals one’s cruel heart.

Such is true for every religion. When pilgrims tragically die while searching for meaning in life, it should give us pause to remember our own struggle, our personal journey, and not an opportunity to sound like a pompous, ignorant fool.


Derek Beres, a Los Angeles-based author, music producer, and yoga instructor, looks at a range of issues affecting the world's various spiritual communities in an attempt to sift through hyperbole and find truly universal solutions to prevalent issues facing humanity in the 21st century. 

Image: STR / Getty Images

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The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

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An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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