When I was in college, our highly competitive local hockey team was scheduled to play an equally successful Canadian team in a tie-breaking game near the end of the season. This was such a big deal at the time that news of the game had even penetrated my consciousness—and when it comes to sports, I generally live in an alternate universe. Tickets had been sold out for weeks, but a day or two before the game, a friend told me she’d been given two tickets and asked if I wanted to go. Sure, I thought, why not?
We arrived early, and as we waited outside for the doors to open, we chatted with an assortment of friendly people around us: a young couple with a toddler in a stroller, middle age couples, suit-clad business folks just off work on a Friday afternoon. After these many years, it’s eerie how well I remember some of these people; it’s like the almost preternatural recall some people have of the moments just before a car wreck.
The pleasant mood of gentile camaraderie continued as we all filed into the coliseum, picked up snacks, found our seats: people smiling, laughing, helping each other shrug out of their coats. So far, my friend and I were having a wonderful adventure.
Then the chatter over the loudspeakers rose to a crescendo, all eyes turned to the rink, and the players skated out onto the ice. The mood of the crowd changed instantly. One player shoved another with a stick, and the crowd roared. A fight broke out on the ice, and the crowd erupted. The good, kindly looking people around us began, literally, screaming for blood. Red-faced men, veins in their necks bulging, punching fists into the air; women screeching obscenities; almost everyone raging at one player or another, if not the referee. It seemed to take an hour for my friend and I to make our way to the end of the aisle and out the door. Then we stood outside on the sidewalk, in the quiet of a normal Friday evening, horrified at what we’d just witnessed.
From that day forward, a lot of things made sense to me: ancient Roman crowds in the Colosseum, the French Revolution, the Salem witchcraft trials. What I learned that day is something that must be understood in your gut, not in your head: like packs of animals, human beings can turn on a dime at the smell of blood.
Clearly this propensity for people to lose themselves—their individuality and personal consciousness—in a crowd has evolutionary advantages. In defense of the tribe, of the family, people forget themselves and willingly sacrifice their lives, if necessary, for the good of the whole. In the midst of a crisis, there is no time for reflection, and nature has provided a mechanism whereby rational thought can be shut down in favor of raw, unfiltered emotion.
Furthermore, in order to assure an ample supply of warriors to protect the community, nature has provided an assortment of hormones that, once released into the bloodstream, make us feel ecstatic and invincible. Simply put, it feels good to be swept away on a sea of emotion.
From rock concerts to religious revivals, hangings to hockey games, people gather together partly because, from a purely biological standpoint, it feels great to be in a crowd that’s emotionally charged up and focused on a common goal—whether that goal is a line on the turf or the slaughter of innocents. This is a fundamental feature of the human organism, and it hasn’t changed since our ancestors first started walking upright.
What has changed is our collective human experience and our ability to reflect on it. We can now ask ourselves questions like, “Is this right?” “Do I want to be a part of this?” We are capable of understanding—if only we stop to think about it—that just because something feels right, that doesn’t mean it is right, from either a factual or moral perspective.
We must start teaching this fundamental fact of human nature to our children. We must make it known that, sometimes, it’s our personal responsibility to detach ourselves from the crowd, to deliberately switch on the thought process, even to take the considerable risk of raising our voices in opposition. Such values education might not have prevented a 15-year-old’s homecoming dance from turning into hours of torture and gang rape—but then again, it might at least have inspired one of the many witnesses to call 911.