The Cornered Cat

I’m going to tell you a little secret. Ready? Here it is: It is okay to break the rules in order to defend yourself. A lot of times, when I say something like that to firearms people, they respond instantly, “Oh! You mean like, it’s against the rules to shoot someone, but if you need to defend yourself, then you can break that rule?” That’s a good thought, and it’s not inaccurate. That is one of the things I mean. However, I think it needs to start a lot farther back than that, and deal with the question of how to stay out of trouble in the first place.

One of the things that criminals are good at—must be good at, in order to do their jobs—is using the social rules to their own advantage. Here are some examples of the social rules we in America obey every day:

  • Don’t draw attention to yourself.
  • Don’t knock over a little old lady.
  • Don’t make people feel uncomfortable.
  • Don’t leave home without your keys.
  • Don’t order a meal and then leave.
  • Don’t break a window.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Don’t talk in the movie theater.
  • Don’t go out of the house naked.
  • Don’t knock over your cubicle walls.
  • Don’t lock the keys in the car.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Don’t be late for your appointment.
  • Don’t drive on the lawn.
  • Don’t be rude.
  • Don’t run in church.
  • Don’t tackle the waitress.
  • Don’t leave without saying goodbye.
  • Don’t ignore people talking to you.
  • Don’t barge in.
  • Don’t leave your purse behind.
  • Don’t yell in the library.
  • Don’t talk too loud.
  • Don’t abandon your full shopping cart.
  • Don’t steal an old man’s cane.
  • Don’t throw food.
  • Don’t use the “employees only” door.
  • Don’t let babies ride without a car seat.
  • Don’t trip your husband.
  • Don’t jump over the line dividers.
  • Don’t leave your card in the ATM.
  • Don’t shove through a crowd.
  • Don’t stand too close.
  • Don’t run over a pedestrian.
  • Don’t run a red light.
  • Don’t act racist.
  • Don’t leave your laundry.
  • Don’t drag your children by their arms.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Did some of those items make you laugh out loud for their sheer obviousness? We live with a million rules, a billion rules, every day. Most of them are so ingrained in us by the time we’re adults that they become like a force of nature. Just as a fish is probably never aware that it is wet, humans are rarely conscious of the social rules that constrain us. And the more obvious the rule may seem, the less likely we are to notice it in daily life—or to deliberately break it in order to get out of trouble before it starts.

Here’s a challenge for you: read the list again. This time, as you read each one, picture a situation where violating the rule would be one way to get out of trouble. For example:

Not long ago, I was out of town when my cell phone rang. At the other end of the phone, one of my friends sounded worried as she described her situation. She was inside a large convention center waiting for an event to start. The event was nearly sold out, yet twenty minutes after the planned start time, the auditorium remained only about three-quarters filled. More ominously, my friend could see significant law enforcement activity taking place just a few sections over from where she was seated. Rumors were flying through the crowd and my friend really believed there was a bomb in the building, although no official announcement had been made.

As we discussed my friend’s options, I asked how far she was seated from an exit. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I haven’t looked yet.” She was worried enough to call me, but because she was rattled, she hadn’t yet thought to look for a way out. I encouraged her to do so, and she noted that there was an exit door just one section over. After a moment, she said, “No, wait, I can’t go out that way. I would have to climb over some seats to get there, or else go down to the area that’s all blocked off and then come back up.” I asked if the seats between her and the exit were occupied. They were not. Were the seats particularly tall, or was there anything else blocking her way to the exit? There was not. At this point, I realized that the only thing holding my friend in the building where she clearly felt extremely threatened was the fear of others seeing her break the social rules by climbing over a few seats.

Another friend of mine tells a similar story. He was eating in a restaurant one day when the building’s smoke alarm began to sound—an earsplitting, unmistakable klaxon blare. The room was crowded, with many tables sharing a large area, and he was seated just a few feet from the door. And yet he did not get up and walk out that door when the alarm sounded. Rather, he looked around the room and saw that other people remained seated, some looking around and some simply continuing to eat. So my friend, playing it cool, stayed in his seat and resumed his meal as the wail of the alarm filled the air around him. A few minutes later, he smelled a whiff of smoke. Just a whiff. A minor, easily-ignored scent. Of course, it was a scent that didn’t belong and that signaled extreme danger in a crowded building. But no one else had moved from their seats. And he hadn’t yet paid for his meal. So he continued to eat, a bit more uneasily but still determined not to make a fool of himself. He continued to play it cool, in fact, right up until the fire department arrived and the fire marshal, in no uncertain terms, yelled at every patron in the restaurant to GET OUT NOW, because the building was, in fact, on fire. Standing in the street a few minutes later, the marshal then proceeded to dress down the manager in front of everybody present, pointing out that it was the manager’s job “to see that the damned fools in your establishment don’t ignore the fire alarms and get themselves killed.”

Both of my friends’ reactions were perfectly normal. This is the way people normally think. It isn’t until the building has actually collapsed that the earthquake victim realizes she should have dived for cover when the first, mild tremor began. It isn’t until the fire rages out of control that the person cooking dinner gets excited about the little grease flare on the stove. It isn’t until the stolen car actually speeds away that the owners realize their car alarm wasn’t chirping simply to annoy them. And it isn’t until it is literally too late to escape that most people begin looking for a way out of a developing danger.

Because social rules are so rarely spoken aloud, they have a power to compel us far out of proportion to their purpose. When we see another person violating those social rules, we are often alarmed or dismayed—and often with good reason!—but the taboo against talking about the rules often also prevents us from being able to articulate exactly what we find so threatening about their behavior. Even worse, when another person violates the social rules, many of us are still respectfully bound to obey those same rules. That prevents us from being able to respond immediately, appropriately, and effectively to the developing threat.

As an example, when I was around thirteen years old, I was at an amusement park with some friends when lunchtime rolled around. The park was very crowded and the line for refreshments was terribly long, so I agreed to stand in line for all of us while my friends found us a place to sit. So I was standing in line by myself when an older teen came up and stood alongside me. I didn’t know him. He was just there: long-haired, scraggy beard, smelled like stale cigarette smoke and something I couldn’t identify. Since I didn’t know him and didn’t know what to do about him standing right next to me like that, I decided to pretend he wasn’t there, looking away from him as if I hadn’t even noticed his presence. A moment later, he crowded extremely close to me, standing right next to my side, literally touching shoulders with me. I moved away from the unwanted touch, but still didn’t say anything. It was too weird. He wasn’t acting right. He should have gone to the back of the line if he wanted to buy something, I thought. I edged away from him and he took a step toward me. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. The line moved forward and as it moved, he put his foot right up against mine, bumping his hip against mine in intimate offensiveness. I again moved to one side—and now he was standing in the line and I was standing to one side of the line. And just at that point was where the line narrowed down into those little metal bar people-separators, and he got my place in line and I was left standing stupidly to one side. I didn’t know what to do. So I turned to walk away, and as I turned, he finally spoke. “Nice try,” he said.

At any point during the humiliating process of “giving” a stranger my place in line, I could have spoken up. We were surrounded by people. I could have stood my ground and looked him in the eye and said, “NO. This is MY spot.” I could have talked to the people behind me—people who had just as much interest as I did in not allowing others to cut in front of them—and told them what was going on. I could have yelled for the security guard standing just across the way. But I did nothing. And for years it bothered me, in a vague sort of way. Why did I just let him take my spot? Why did I do nothing?

Looking back as an adult, I finally realized exactly why I felt uncomfortable and alarmed from the very beginning of our encounter. It was because he began by breaking the unspoken rules of social behavior: Don’t stand too close to people you don’t know. I was worried and I was angry, but at the time I could not have told anyone what it was, exactly, that bothered me the most. Far more than his specific behavior, far more than the lost spot in a lunch line, and even more than the unwanted touch, what bothered me the most—then and now—was that his actions, in a form much louder than words, told me he did not consider himself bound by the rules that bind other people. A man who isn’t bound by the rules of the civilized society around him is a dangerous man, and some part of me understood that even then.

At the same time, even though he had just told me in the most convincing possible way that social rules had no power over him, I said and did nothing because I was still bound by those same social rules. I was a good person, a nice kid, not given to drawing attention to myself. So even though he didn’t consider himself bound by any social constraints, he still used the social rules to control my behavior. He gambled that I would follow the rules while he broke them. And he was right.

Does this matter? In one sense, not at all. The meal I stood in line for twice was eaten long ago, and its delay cost me not a whit. But in another sense, it matters deeply, because it illustrates so clearly how a good person can get trapped in a situation where she really does have other choices, when those choices lay outside the standard social contract: making a scene in a crowd simply isn’t allowed under the rules most people live by. It serves to illustrate another point too, one that’s fairly critical. Although all I lost was a few more minutes standing in line, the reason I lost my spot was because the scraggly guy got the reaction he was hoping for when I did not speak up. In a sense, he “interviewed” me for the job of victim that day, and I passed his interview with flying colors. But this is one interview a woman never wants to pass.

Self defense instructor Marc MacYoung details what he calls the five stages of violent crime on his very worthwhile DVD, Street Safe. 1MacYoung notes that crime and violence are processes that take time to develop. The attack itself is not the first step. Rather, there are certain necessary building blocks that must be in place first. Likewise, the initial attack is not the conclusion of the criminal’s activity. Here are the five stages of crime, as MacYoung identifies them:

MacYoung notes, “During the first three stages, you can prevent an attack without the use of violence. These are where the criminal decides whether or not he can get away with it. He may want to (Intent), but if he doesn’t have the opportunity (Positioning) he cannot succeed. The Interview is his way to double check if you are safe for him to attack. If these conditions are not met, he will not attack!” 2

Criminals, especially predatory criminals, make a living by reading people. In order to stay alive and stay out of jail, they learn to watch the signals other people send. They literally gamble their lives and their freedom on choosing the “right” people to attack—people who will be good victims and follow the script the criminal has prepared. One important part of that script includes you, the good person, following little social rules even when those rules narrow your choices and finally trap you in a dangerous situation you could easily have escaped otherwise. Don’t fall for it!

Cst. Sandra Glendinning, a member of the Vancouver (Canada) Police Department, tells the story of a reported disturbance at a local bank. Working nearby, she responded to the call, which initially provided few details. In her own words, here’s what happened next:

The main doors led into the ATM machine area, which was separated from the rest of the bank by a set of glass doors and a glass wall.

I had time to take in a woman and a young child at the ATM when a flash of yellow drew my attention to the inside of the bank. The flash of yellow was the jacket on a security guard. He was darting around on the other side of the glass and pointing frantically to another area of the bank. Several staff members were running around behind him, and one woman ducked beneath the counter. “Oh shit,” I said under my breath, and my hand dropped to my sidearm.

“Radio to the units at the bank,” our dispatcher broke in, her voice full of concern, “The manager’s on the line—there’s a man with a gun inside the bank.”

The officer with me went to contain the other exit as I drew my pistol and started to take cover. Then I remembered the woman and child at the ATM—they would be in clear view of anyone inside the bank and would make ideal hostages. I could not go to them as I did not want the gunman to know the police were there, so I stayed rooted in the doorway and called out to them.

The woman turned and gasped, drawing her daughter tight to her side when she saw my uniform and gun. I told her to come to me NOW but she balked. “What’s wrong?” she asked in a whisper.

“There’s a man with a gun inside the bank and I need you and your daughter to come here now,” I said, beckoning her with my free hand. I hoped she could tell by the tone of my voice that I was not messing around.

The woman instinctively placed her body between her child and the doors of the bank and started towards me. Just when I thought she was going to be out of harm’s way the woman stopped and pointed backwards.

“My bank card!”

And with that she stepped back to the machine with her child, pressed a button, and waited for the machine to spit her card out. 3

Do you suppose this woman really intended to put herself and her child in mortal danger? I doubt it. I think she was just stuck in the “social rules” loop. The social rules tell you not to leave valuable belongings lying around in public. They tell you not to block the use of a public facility for the next patron. They tell you not to leave your card in the ATM.

This dynamic doesn’t just come into play with criminal danger, by the way. It happens with other types of danger too. For example, at International Training, Inc. (ITI) in Texas, professional drivers teach students how to safely avoid collisions even when operating at high speed. 4

One training drill at ITI places a student behind the wheel with an instructor in the passenger seat on a closed driving track. Laid out on Texas flatland, with hard-packed caliche clay on both sides of the road and no trees for miles, the track at ITI provides the perfect environment for this type of training. Before the drill begins, the instructor tells the student that the exercise has only one rule: do whatever it takes to avoid hitting the cones. The cones represent kindergarteners. Or your own loved ones. Or a pack of peaceful nuns crossing the road in front of you. Whatever happens, the instructor says, the student must not hit the cones. That’s the only rule. The instructor then blocks the student’s view of the road ahead, and steers for the student as the student brings the vehicle to full speed. The instructor yanks the vision blocker away when the vehicle is nearly on top of a crowd of traffic cones, and the student must deal immediately with the sudden view—braking, steering, and otherwise doing whatever is necessary to avoid driving over any of the orange cones.

The trick—and it is a trick and a nasty one!—is that the cones completely block the roadway. There is no way to avoid those suicidal little cones unless the student immediately opts to steer off the pavement and onto the packed clay alongside the road. Most don’t. Most freeze, panic, and drive thump thump thump over the cones. All because they cannot break the “rule” (never given by instructors!) that says good drivers never let their wheels leave the roadway.

Is a traffic law more important than human life? No, it is not. But just like minor social rules, traffic laws usually help people navigate safely and reasonably around other people. Even though obeying the traffic codes and following minor social rules helps society run smoothly most of the time, those same rules occasionally put human life at risk. For this reason, a truly safe driver must be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the people around her safe—even if it means ignoring a rule that she normally obeys. And someone interested in protecting herself and her loved ones must make the same decision to do whatever it takes to stay safe.

Whatever it takes. A lot of times, concealed carry people jump on that phrase with great abandon. “OH YEAH, I’ll do whatever it takes! I’ll shoot the—.” But what if whatever it takes means apologizing to the scuzzy little punk and backing away from the situation? What if it means leaving early from a concert you’d paid to attend? What if it means being thought of as a wimp or a girly-girl or a silly little fool because you chose to avoid potential danger? What if it means giving in, backing down, backing away? Are you really, truly willing to do whatever it takes to stay safe and keep your family safe?

A while back, I had an interesting conversation with Caleb Giddings of the Gun Nuts Radio podcast. 5 At the time we spoke, Caleb had recently been involved in an attempted mugging and had defended himself. On a bright Saturday morning, he exited his downtown office and was confronted by a man wielding a large knife. Caleb’s little pocket gun snagged on the draw, so as he worked to get his firearm out, he also hurled a cup of hot coffee at his assailant. The criminal ducked and fled, and Caleb never even had to fire a shot. Definitely a victory! During our conversation, Caleb told me that his wife had asked what he would have done if he didn’t have the coffee with him. “I probably would have thrown my new iPhone at him,” Caleb told her. He quite reasonably believed that buying himself enough time to save his own life was certainly worth the cost and hassle of replacing a cell phone.

Unfortunately, this type of quick thinking under stress does not come naturally to many—perhaps most—people. Especially when it involves a violation of the social norms. By thinking through these types of potentially-embarrassing ways to avoid danger or to escape once trouble starts, we can begin to set both the optional social rules and our own physical safety in the proper perspective. Swallowing the bitter pill of a little social embarrassment beats dying, every time.


  1. Street Safe: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Violent Crime (Marc MacYoung, Paladin Press, 1993/LOTI, 2007).
  2. From MacYoung’s website at
  3. “Today’s Would-Be Hostage,” blog post dated 9 October 2009, Policing in Vancouver blog at
  4. ITI Texas, 10700 South Interstate Highway 35, Dilley, TX 78017. (830) 334 2990.