A very significant portion of the tools that an individual brings to the task of self-defense is the ability to avoid dangerous situations. No matter how tough your are, or skilled you are, or even how fast you are, you are not going to win every fight you get into. And the ones you lose, can get you killed. But you can “win” every fight you don't get into, simply by virtue of having avoided the confrontation.
In many situations, that requires that you see the potential threat coming before it gets to you. You recognize the potential for danger, and you take steps to remove yourself from the situation before it blows up around you and you can no longer escape.
What we are talking about is awareness. Recognition of what is happening around you, who the individuals are that are part of your environment at any given time, and what they are doing. This is referred to by many experts as “situational awareness.”
"Situational awareness is the process of recognizing a threat at an early stage and taking measures to avoid it. Being observant of one’s surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations is more of an attitude or mind set than it is a hard skill. Because of this, situational awareness is not just a process that can be practiced by highly trained government agents or specialized corporate security counter surveillance teams — it can be adopted and employed by anyone."
Burton, Stewart, Threats, Situational Awareness and Perspective, STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE, August, 2007 (emphasis added). Awareness, according to many experts, makes up 90% of your ability to provide for your own defense, with only the remaining 10% involved in your physical response to danger.
People often speak of the issue in terms of “levels of awareness” and, as is often the case, the effort to differentiate one’s ideas on a topic from those of others can lead to confusing layers of complication being unnecessarily added to an otherwise simple, straightforward idea. Want some proof? Google the search phrase “levels of awareness”. You will find countless articles stating that there are three, no four, no five, . . . up to as many as seven levels of human awareness. And you are going to remember all of this from this point on, no matter how stressful the situation is that you are confronting? I do not believe that this is practical, let alone possible. If you look at the most commonly taught descriptions of levels of awareness taught to self-defense students, you will find similarities.
Colonel John “Jeff” Cooper, the founder of what is now known as the Gunsite Academy, is credited with coming up with a color-code, evidencing various levels of awareness.
Code White -
You feel secure, whether or not you are actually safe.
Awareness is switched off.
You are unaware of your environment, and the people in that environment and what they are doing
All attackers look for victims in this state.
Code Yellow -
You are cautious. You should spend most of the time in this state.
Awareness is switched on.
State of threat awareness and relaxed alertness.
You have a 360-degree peripheral awareness of such environmental danger spots as secluded doorways, entries, and alleys.
Code Orange -
You recognize that you are in danger. You are aware of a potential threat.
Your mind is focused on evaluating that threat.
Specific alert. A possible target has been identified. A particular situation that has drawn your attention and could present a major problem. Someone may be giving oral indicators such as direct threats or using suspicious language. Focus on the potential attacker.
Code Red -
You are engaged in conflict.
Fight or flight. Flee, defend, or attack. You have evaluated the situation, and if there is a threat, you prepare to fight or run.
Never stand or fight if there is a possibility of fleeing.
This Color Code system, is used by most military and police organizations, to differentiate different levels of awareness.
However, Cooper himself said that it was not intended to reflect levels of awareness, but, instead, the various mindsets that an individual might adopt in reacting to a combat situation. Cooper’s words on the subject are often forgotten by those who wish to use it to represent levels of awareness. In any event, it works well for this purpose. Cooper used four different colors. From white to red. Clint Smith, the Director at Thunder Ranch, and a graduate of Gunsite, argues for the inclusion of a fifth level, black. At this level, you are engaged in combat and its not a fight to win situation, it’s a fight to live situation.
The NRA uses no colors, instead reflecting the same concepts in terms of mental perception: unaware, aware, alert and alarm. When demonstrating these levels in print, the various levels are, however, attributed colors that correspond with Col. Cooper’s original color codes.
UNAWARE - a person is completely oblivious to his surroundings and is not paying attention to others around him. He is the person who is watching the television screen while pumping his gas at a gas station, the woman power-walking along an isolated forest path with an Ipod earpiece crammed in her ear, or the person talking via cell phone to a friend while sitting in a parked car.
AWARE - a person is actively aware of their environment. They observe everyone in the immediate environment closely enough to be able to describe them if the need ever arose. They are aware of anyone who seeks to violate their personal spacial boundaries. The aware person knows that distance is a friend and is willing to preserve that space even at the sake of hurting someone's feelings. An aware person can not be followed without knowing about it, unlike many victims today who are trailed home from the local drug store to be robbed in front of their homes.
ALERT - the aware person moves to alert when they sense that something is wrong in their current environment. Often, to an aware person there is a feeling or sensation that another person is "up to no good." When this level of awareness is reached, a tentative plan of action is to be put into play such that if a violation of an established threshold is violated, the person in alert status definitely knows that further action is warranted to preserve their safety.
ALARM - in this state, the individual’s threshold for action has been triggered. This might involve flight to avoid danger, or it may necessitate a fight, if flight is not possible for whatever reason. But because the individual has gone from a state of awareness, through alert, where options for action have been evaluated, the decision to act in a specific manner can be made rapidly and without further deliberation.
For example, a woman is walking down a residential sidewalk when, ahead of her, four men get out of a car and start walking toward her on the same sidewalk. She is aware because she sees a potential threat to her safety. Instead of being blissfully ignorant, listening to music or an inspirational speech on her Ipod, bells go off in her mind as she realizes that "something might be up." Rather than "being nice" by continuing to walk towards the men for risk of hurting the feelings of individuals she does not even know, she elects to cross the street, creating distance and also a tripwire for additional evaluation. If the men also cross to her new pathway, her concerns have been confirmed.
Regardless which particular ranking system you examine, all of them, to the extent that they are attempting to address the issue of personal awareness, are expressing a single, simple concept. In order to have the best chance of avoiding danger, you have to be aware of the danger.
Going about your daily activities, so absorbed in those activities, or your own personal thoughts, that you fail to be aware of your environment, and the individuals who are a part of that environment is a recipe for disaster. Not because you are a “bad” person, not because you are in a “bad area”, but simply because bad things happen to good people, and there is absolutely no way to predict whether something bad will be visited upon you, no matter where you are, or when you are there.
July 18, 1984, San Ysidro, James Huberty, an unemployed security guard, armed himself with three guns and left his home, telling his wife he was going to “hunt humans”. Ms. Huberty did not call the police and later had no explanation for her inaction. Huberty walked into a McDonald’s restaurant a few blocks from his home, with a gym bag filled with firearms and ammunition. The customers inside the McDonalds, all caught up in their own activities of order and eating food, talking with friends and family members did not notice him setting down his bag and withdrawing an Uzi submachine gun. Their first inkling of danger was when he ordered everybody to the floor. When an employee tried to call 911, Huberty opened fire on the customers laying on the floor. He killed 20 people and wounded 16 others before a police sharpshooter shot him dead.
On January 17, 1989, a drifter named Patrick Purdy attacked a crowded Stockton, California school playground with a semi-automatic rifle and two pistols. After killing five children and wounding many more, Purdy killed himself.
On October 16, 1991, George Hennard drove his pickup truck through a plate glass window at the Killeen, Texas, Luby's Cafeteria. He jumped out and screamed: “This is what Bell County has done to me!” Hennard then opened fire with two different handguns, shooting to death 23 people, and finally killing himself with a shot to his head. Suzanna Hupp, a reputed expert pistol shot, with a carry permit, was in the restaurant with her parents. She had left her handgun in her vehicle before entering the restaurant. Her unarmed father rushed the gunman and was killed, and her mother, who rushed to the aid of her husband, was also killed, shot in the head at point blank range. You can Google her name and hear her describe the scene during testimony before Congress.
And, as we all know, on January 8, 2011, a crazed gunman opened fire at a Safeway store in Tucson, Arizona, shooting 19 people and killing 6 of them including a nine year old girl, a Congresswoman, and a Federal Judge.
Is it enough to say, “Well, you just have to avoid places where these things happen”? But as you can see that would, at the very least involve avoiding fast food restaurants, cafes, schools, and grocery stores. Not very practical, but I guess you could just stay at home. However, sadly, the evidence establishes that this will not work all that well either. On May 11, 2008, two men broke into a Burnsville, Minnesota home, stabbing the homeowner 17 times in the back, twice in the head and once in the cheek-- and setting seven fires in his home before fleeing in his car. He was hospitalized for a day and a half and forced to live in an apartment for several months until his home, which was heavily damaged by smoke, was habitable again.
On June 28, 2008 an intruder walked into a home in Elk River, Minnesota and stabbed the sleeping homeowner in the neck. The homeowner survived the attack, and it was later determined that the 21-year-old attacker actually lived just down the road from the victim, who did not know him. The attacker was later also convicted in a separate incident where on June 13, 2008, he broke into a house through a locked patio door, and sexually assaulted a woman at knife point for an hour while the woman's child was sleeping in a nearby room. Police believe the later stabbing incident was motivated by a desire to rape the victims teen-aged daughter after killing anyone who might prevent that attack.
There are too many other similar incidents to count, but several things are clear. One of these is that, no matter where you are, “things like that do happen here”, and there is simply no place you can go where you can be assured that a violent confrontation will not occur. A second observation is that, despite the arguments from gun-control advocates that eliminating guns will eliminate violent crime, those who, for whatever reason, elect to prey upon our citizens will find the means necessary to do so.
So, this discussion is not necessarily about arming yourself with a gun. Its about arming yourself with the first and most effective line of defense, your brain. And having that brain actively engaged, as you travel about your daily activities, aware of your surroundings, aware of those around you, aware of their actions and aware of potential escape routes in the event that your senses alert you to the potential for deadly violence.
Whether you are out at 11:00 p.m. at the local convenience store, picking up some ice cream for a late night snack while watching a movie at home, or leaving the grocery store at the end of a work day with supper in the shopping bag, or taking an evening stroll through the neighborhood on a warm Summer night, being aware of your surroundings and the movement of others around you can be critical to your continued health, welfare and safety.
Being purposefully ignorant of risk, and oblivious to your environment does not make you a better person, or a mentally healthier person. It simply means that you are unwilling for whatever reason, to take personal responsibility for your own safety. For those who have actually said to me, “I refuse to live in that sort of world, that’s a job for the police!”, I can only say two things. First, if you insist upon living in such a fantasy, it is possible that at some point, you will no longer be able to live in any sort of world at all. Second, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.
Being “aware”, as opposed to “unaware”, or at “condition yellow”, as opposed to “condition white” does not take a tremendous amount of energy. Nor does it make you “paranoid”. It makes you watchful, observant, thinking about what you are doing and what people around you, or about to come into your presence, are doing. Very much like the way you are supposed to be acting when driving a motor vehicle (then its called “defensive driving” and even anti-gun advocates think that’s okay), operating machinery, hunting with your buddies or walking to your seat at the baseball stadium with a cold beer in your hand. Okay then, to make everybody happy, we could call it “defensive living”.
It does not mean walking down the street, your eyes on your shoe tips with a cell phone plastered against you head as so many of our citizens seem to do these days. It does not mean walking out of a convenience store into a dimly lit parking lot, with your arms loaded with packages, fumbling for your keys, looking at the rust spot on your car door and thinking about the argument you just had with your spouse, or your upcoming work project. It does not mean being so caught up in the immediate tasks such as ordering a Big Mac at McDonalds that you don’t take time to notice the man walking through the door of the McDonalds with an obviously heavy gym bag in his hand, or, as in the case of James Huberty, a fully loaded Uzi submachine gun.
What you choose to do if and when confronted with something that does not add up right in your mind, something that gives you a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach, a feeling that our ancestors learned early on to respect, well, that’s your decision to make. Each of us, back somewhere in our family tree, had ancestors who, when observing their world with a watchful eye, suddenly got that tingling at the back of their neck, or a queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach, and without a second thought took flight, or armed themselves in some fashion to fight for their lives. They lived and were allowed by the natural selection process to perpetuate the species simply because they did not ever stop to say to themselves, “Oh, things like that don’t happen here!” Because they did not delude themselves into believing that they lived in the sort of world where everybody gets along and resolves issues with compassionate dialogue. They accepted the reality of their existence and stayed awake to who and what was happening around them. They recognize potential danger and made instant decisions they had given thought to ahead of time. Do I stay and fight? Do I run away? What is available for me to use to defend myself? If I run, where do I go, and how do I get there?
In reality, that is all the concept of situational awareness involves. Being observant, scanning and evaluating our surroundings, accepting without question that danger can come suddenly and with no warning whatsoever, and recognizing the potential for danger as it approaches, while developing a plan to either defend against the danger, or to just get away from the danger as quickly as possible, without wasting time asking oneself, “Is this really happening?”. Because by the time you are busy asking yourself that question, the answer is already “Yes.”