It was a sad story.

A tragic story.

A part-time, seasonal employee hired to work the holiday rush at a Valley Stream, N.Y., Wal-Mart, was knocked down and trampled to death Friday morning as shoppers crowded their way into the store at 5 a.m. looking for door-buster bargains.

So we’re hearing about greed and we’re hearing about materialism, and how the meaning of the season has been lost in the quest for more and better consumer goods.

Uh, not so much.

This was the first year in the last eight that I wasn’t out there in the middle of the night covering Black Friday as a newspaper reporter. I’ve interviewed dozens if not hundreds of people who waited in line 15, 20, even 30 hours in hopes of being one of the few shoppers to get the real bargains.

At Wal-Mart on Friday it was a 50-inch plasma television for $798. My guess is there were no more than five in each store, although that estimate might be on the high side.

I heard somebody say that anyone who stepped on the poor guy who died should be arrested for manslaughter, but let me tell you, when those crowds start pushing — from the back — you often have very little choice as to where you step and no chance at all to stop without being knocked down and trampled yourself.

Most of those people weren’t there because of greed, either. They were there because it gets harder and harder to give your kids a decent Christmas when real wages have declined over the last eight years.

You’ve got less money. Things cost more. What do you do?

You get in line and push and shove, because in an awful lot of families in this country, you’re judged by what you can do for your children at Christmas.

It’s all quite dehumanizing in a society in which it’s becoming harder and harder to think of yourself as an individual. Think about how many jobs have been quasi-militarized. If you’re applying for a job in most places, thinking for yourself is a negative.

Obeying orders without question is a positive.

So being part of a mob waiting to grab the crumbs Wal-Mart throws out there is just part of a natural progression.

I don’t blame the shoppers at all.

I blame the culture, and most individuals — at least most Wal-Mart shoppers — have as much say in creating the culture as cows do in setting the menu at McDonald’s.

They can’t do it without us, but our role is strictly involuntary.

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