The Cornered Cat


The men weren’t particularly scary-looking. They were young adults, dressed in the casual way young guys dress: jeans, hooded sweat shirts, tennis shoes. Nothing unusual. What was unusual was the way they split up when they left the building…

Ask any self defense instructor, and they will tell you that it’s critically important to be aware of the world around you. Some of them even use special code words to explain the concept: Conditions White, Yellow, Orange, and Red indicate different levels of alertness and willingness to act.

In Condition White, you’re not at all aware of what’s happening around you. You might be sound asleep, or counting your change, or entering a text message. In Condition White, while reading a book, I once-upon-a-time literally walked into a post. The fact that I was in grade school at the time doesn’t seem like much of an excuse. In Condition White, you are mostly unaware of everything outside your personal bubble. You are unprepared—and sometimes, unwilling—to do anything about it if danger looms.

In Condition Yellow, sometimes referred to as a state of relaxed alertness, you’re aware of the people and events taking place around you. You are willing to act if need be, although you don’t believe it will be needed. You are aware of no immediate threat and feel no sense of danger. In Condition Yellow, you’re more likely to see the little things that make life a joy: the mom hugging her three-year-old daughter, the young lovers sneaking a kiss when they think no one’s watching, the rabbits playing at the edge of a farmer’s field. You are also more likely to notice the stranger watching that young child more closely than seems right, a sneak thief reaching for the young woman’s purse while she is distracted by a kiss, or the hawk guarding his territory from the top of a tree and getting ready to grab a rabbit dinner for himself. Because it is alert but not alarmed, Condition Yellow is a healthy and enjoyable place to live the majority of your life.

In Condition Orange, you have become aware of a specific danger and you are prepared to counter that danger if you need to. This is the state you’re in when driving cautiously on an icy road: you’re acutely aware of how slippery the road is and you are closely paying attention to your car’s traction. You are prepared to respond immediately if the tires begin to slip. Condition Orange is sometimes necessary, but it’s neither enjoyable nor healthy to stay at this level of concern all the time.

In Condition Red, the specific danger has become acute and you must act immediately to save yourself. Driving on an icy road, the car ahead of you has spun out of control and you must react immediately before you, too, become involved in the accident. In Condition Red, you aren’t just aware of “some scary dude over there that might do something.” Rather, the scary dude has in fact done something to which you must respond; he has presented the elements of Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy so that lethal force is both justified and appropriate. In Condition Red, you must act immediately to save your life.

Some instructors add other code words, mostly unique to themselves: Condition Black (you are in a state of panic), Condition Black (a lethal assault is underway), 1 Condition Grey (you are in a high-performance zone with an ideal heart rate), Condition Brown (check your pants)…

Where did these ideas come from? Originally developed for the military, the color-coded awareness conditions were adapted for the civilian self defense world by Jeff Cooper, founder of Gunsite. They have proven to be valuable tools to many individuals who have used these concepts to encourage themselves to be more alert, or to explain to others why personal awareness is important.

Not just awareness…

One critical feature of the original color codes that has often been lost or misunderstood is this: the codes do not simply indicate levels of awareness. They indicate willingness to act. Someone in Condition White is not prepared to act and is often unwilling to act. In Condition Yellow, you’re willing to act but don’t believe it will be needed. In Condition Orange, you are prepared to respond quickly to a specific danger you have spotted, and in Condition Red, you must act immediately to save your life. It does no good to feel an Orange or Red level of concern if you have only a White level of willingness to act (that is, none at all).

Let me repeat that point for emphasis: awareness, by itself, is not enough to help you avoid a criminal threat. In fact, criminals usually expect their victims to feel afraid, and some criminals feed on that feeling. Really nasty criminals encourage a victim’s fear and even work hard to increase it. A person who feels alarm but is not prepared to act is an ideal victim for such a criminal, because that person fits neatly into the script the criminal expects to play out when he attacks.

A close encounter of the criminal kind

Here’s an example of how awareness and willingness to act can work together in real life. Several years ago, circumstances forced me to the grocery store, alone, in the middle of the night. Late night isn’t my preferred time to hit the store, but we’d had some car trouble and my husband had been out of town with our only working vehicle for over a week. He arrived home very late and was leaving again early the next morning, and I needed to get supplies before he left again. So it was past midnight when I walked out of the store pushing a full cart of groceries.

As I left the store, I was in Condition Yellow. It was a beautiful evening, with bright stars overhead and a refreshing breeze coming off the field next to the store. I heard the sound of traffic moving past on the freeway, and the laughter of one of the clerks as she joked with one of her co-workers. Because I was paying attention, I also noticed that two men followed me out of the store.

The men weren’t particularly scary-looking. They were young adults, dressed in the casual way young guys dress: jeans, hooded sweat shirts, tennis shoes. Nothing unusual. What was unusual was the way they split up when they left the building. One of them darted around the side of the building farthest from me, while the other sauntered slowly along the storefront as I walked to my car.

Because of their somewhat unusual movement pattern, my attention focused on these young men as a possible source of danger. This was Condition Orange: I had spotted a specific concern and was prepared to act on that concern if need be. I debated going back into the store, but the sauntering man was between me and the entrance, so I judged it smarter to go straight to my car. As I did so, the sauntering man lit up a cigarette. Staying about 50 feet away from me, he paralleled my movement, slowly moving the same general direction I was moving. After a moment, the other man came from behind the corner and walked very briskly away from the building down the main row of cars, two or three aisles over from where my own car was parked. At this point, I thought perhaps the sauntering man was simply taking a smoke break, while the other man was headed to his own car in the main part of the lot.

Everything changed when I reached my own vehicle.

As I unlocked my car and began rapidly throwing the groceries into the back seat, the sauntering man casually threw down his cigarette—the one he had just lit. At the same time, the man who had walked out into the lot abruptly changed direction and began moving very rapidly toward my car. The sauntering man also turned and began slowly moving straight toward me. Picture these men closing two sides of a triangle, approaching me from opposite directions at an angle. They were moving different speeds, but would arrive at my vehicle around the same time.

Still in Condition Orange—willing to act, aware of a specific danger—I slammed the back door of the car and kept the grocery cart in front of me as a physical barrier. I stood up straight and looked directly at the sauntering man, then at the other man who was rapidly closing the distance between us. That was all I did: stand up straight and look directly at each of these men. As I did so, I was acutely aware of the concealed handgun I wear on my belt.

Although I made no movement toward my firearm and did not put my hand on it, as I looked at the men I was thinking about what I might need to do next if my suspicions were confirmed. I thought about backstops: the solid cement-block construction of the store behind the sauntering man, the empty parking lot behind the moving man. I had mentally chosen a “line in the sand,” an imaginary spot between us that would trigger my decision to draw if they did not stop when I told them to stay away from me. But I kept my hands clear, and I didn’t say anything. I just looked at them.

The sauntering man met my eyes. He saw how I stood, the expression on my face, and how I had positioned myself. Then he looked over at his companion, jerked his head with a “no” movement, and turned abruptly away. The other man nodded, and also turned away.

Just like that, it was over.

The two men walked back to the store together without a backward glance. I got in my car and drove away. A mile later, I had to pull over because my hands were shaking, but that passed quickly enough and I drove home without any other excitement.

What did we learn, here?

There are several things I could have done differently in this circumstance. In retrospect, when I saw how the men were moving, perhaps I could have simply gotten into my car and left immediately, abandoning my groceries. Rather than waiting for them to finish their approach before I spoke, I could have yelled for them to stay away from me before they got any closer. I could have called for help, hoping to draw attention from people inside the store. I could have done several other things. But I am satisfied that the simple action I chose—though perhaps not the “best” in some ideal world—solved the problem appropriately and without harm to anyone involved.

The critical thing here, to my way of thinking, is that if I had simply noticed them without being prepared to act on what I noticed, they almost certainly would have continued to run the script they had written for my evening. When they first spotted me inside the store, I must have looked like an unaware victim, but they must have expected me to notice them at some point before they actually attacked. They may have expected, or even counted on, a fear reaction from me when they approached. Well, I was afraid. But my willingness to defend myself almost certainly prevented my body language from shouting “Victim!” to the circling wolves.

Many women—perhaps most of us—can tell similar stories of times when we became aware of a developing danger. But many of us aren’t prepared to act when danger looms. We are instead saved by an unexpected happening: the sudden arrival of a friend, a car pulling into the previously empty lot, some unforeseen event that veers the potential attacker off his chosen path. We’re saved, when we are saved, by chance or simple good luck, not by awareness and good planning.

Luck does happen. It happens often enough that many of us begin to count on it, and brush aside or deny our feelings of danger. Did those men really intend to attack me in some way, steal my groceries or perhaps my car, maybe kidnap and assault me? 2I’d like to answer that question with a “no.” Like most well-adjusted people, I like to think happy thoughts and expect the best of people around me.

Although I hate the fact that criminals do exist, I also think it’s healthiest to be aware of both good and bad potential realities. I think well-adjusted people can choose to enjoy the beautiful things happening around us, but also have a plan to deal with the rare possibility of criminal danger. Choosing to live in Condition Yellow means I will always try to hear the birds singing, see the sun shining overhead, and feel the fresh breeze coming off the meadow. Living in Condition Yellow feels good, because it means I always try to extend my senses and take time to smell the flowers.

Moving into Condition Orange when appropriate, and being prepared to act if necessary, means I can often prevent trouble before it develops to an extreme. Being in Condition Orange means I choose to avoid the bee as it gathers nectar from the flowers I was just enjoying. Because it accepts negative possibilities, moving into Condition Orange may sometimes feel negative. That is why we don’t live there. We move into it only when faced with a specific danger, because it’s certainly healthier to occasionally experience brief negative feelings than it is to be the victim of a violent crime.

We choose to be alert because there is no downside to holding a positive attitude while keeping our eyes wide open to see the world as it really is. We choose to be prepared to act when necessary because, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, luck doesn’t always happen.




  1. Yes, there are two Condition Blacks, meaning two very distinct things that are not the same. Did I mention that these additional code words are mostly unique to individual instructors or schools of thought?
  2. We’ll never know for sure. Perhaps they were just on their way to choir practice and wanted to give me a religious tract because they were concerned for my soul. Maybe they were selling Girl Scout cookies, and wanted to be sure I didn’t miss out. Perhaps they were philanthropists who were trying to give me a check for six billion dollars. Or perhaps I’m just second-guessing myself because everything ended well.