The Cornered Cat

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” – Douglas Adams

Today, I’m going to teach you how to watch a crime video. We see these things all the time on the news, but most of us don’t know how to watch them.

Ohhhh, that probably sounded stupid and snooty and I don’t mean it that way at all! What I mean is, we usually watch the news just to find out what happened today and what the weather will be like tomorrow. That’s what news is for, after all. We don’t often think too deeply about what we see, except maybe to comment on the way the anchors presented it to us. And most of us don’t watch the news with self-defense in mind. But there’s a way to watch some parts of the news that can actually help you train yourself how to respond to a violent crime.

Unfortunately, a lot of us simply don’t know how to do that very effectively. Even when we watch a video with the intention of learning something from it, we’re strongly tempted to … well, to fantasize about how well we’d do in similar circumstances. In our fantasies, we’re always alert, always faster and tougher and more prepared than we’re likely to be in real life. We’re tempted to handwave right past the tough questions, and we resist thinking about anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. So we need a process that forces us back to reality at every step of the way.

To explain this process, I need you to watch one video at least three different times. Depending on the things you see and the things you need to think about, you might end up needing to watch it a few more times after that. But you will need to see it at least three times. If you have seen this video before (as you probably have if you’ve been following my posts on Facebook), don’t let that deter you. You will still find this exercise valuable, because it really isn’t about this particular scene—it’s about how to train your mindset when you see these types of things in the news.

To get full benefit from this exercise, you will need to be brutally honest with yourself. Brutally honest. You will not have any trouble figuring out the “right” answer to any of the questions I ask below, but please don’t go there! The “right” answers won’t do you any good at all if they don’t fit realistically into your life, or if they are less than completely honest. The questions are to spark your own thinking inside the privacy of your own skull, and nobody but you will know how you answer. Even at that, you will be tempted to gloss over your weak points and embellish your strong ones. Don’t! Think about your situation as it really is, about your willingness to act as it really is, about your ability to respond as it really is. Think about the tools you actually would have with you, not the ones you might have with you in some ideal world where someone warned you there would be a test today.

So let’s get started.

First Viewing

Start by watching the video with the sound up so you have a good overview of the event. The video below, which we will use to illustrate the thinking process, shows a home invasion in Arizona that was caught on the homeowner’s surveillance tape. The homeowner—the man without a shirt—was working in his front yard when two men approached. According to the news report, they asked him if they could do some yard work for him. Watch to see what happens next.

You can also read a written description of the event on the ABC News website.

When we watch videos like this, we tend to lean heavily on what the news anchors say about it. But sometimes their words can get in the way of our ability to really see what’s going on in the picture, so from this point on, we will leave the sound off. You don’t need their explanations any more, and their voices will distract you from the things you need to be thinking about.

If you had any strong emotional reaction to your first viewing of the video, go ahead and explore those emotions now. Let yourself feel them. Think about how you would physically or practically respond if you felt those emotions full-force during a criminal encounter. Don’t shy away from whatever you feel, because emotions are a big part of what happens during criminal attacks. If you felt anger, confusion, fear, horror—whatever you felt—that’s okay. Think about how you might channel that feeling, whatever it was, into an effective decision to protect yourself and the people you love.

Also, did watching the video trigger any memories? If so, go ahead and explore those memories now. Jot them down if you need to, and especially think about similarities to other events you have experienced or heard about. In what ways were those events similar? How were they different from this one?

Now set those thoughts aside, and clear your mind for the next viewing.

Second Viewing

Turn the sound off and queue the video to the start of the action.

Before you start the video again, mentally put yourself in the same place as the shirtless homeowner. Think about a hot summer afternoon. You have been working in the yard—perhaps just puttering around, perhaps mowing the lawn, perhaps weeding the flowerbed. You are sweaty, maybe a little dehydrated, thinking about your yard work or maybe thinking about taking a break in a few minutes. As you move around your property, two men approach your front walkway and call out to you. They are looking for work. You turn toward them and move closer so you can have a conversation with them.

Okay, that’s the mindset you’re in right now: hot, sweaty, distracted, working, ready to talk.

Here are some of the questions you will ask yourself before you watch the video the second time. This isn’t a complete list, but should be enough to help you understand the thinking process we are trying to spark.

After reading these questions, you should tweak them to apply to your own life and circumstances. Also, add other questions as they occur to you.

Now start the video again and watch it with these questions in mind. With the resources YOU would likely have—not my resources, not the resources the homeowner in the video may have had, but with the resources you yourself would likely have—how would you realistically defend yourself during an event like this one?

Can you spot any times when the homeowner “should have” done something you yourself would be able to do in similar circumstances? If so, pause the video at that point and explore that thought with brutal honesty.

For example, if you think the homeowner “should have” kept his distance, think about yourself in similar circumstances. Have you ever been rude to a stranger by keeping your distance when they just wanted to talk to you? Would you be willing to be rude to a young man who apparently just wanted to talk to you—and would you be willing to do that even before you heard what he wanted? How curious are you, usually, and how likely would you be to move closer just to find out what the scam really is?

Go through this same basic chain of thought with any other “should have” ideas that come up while you watch the video from the perspective of the shirtless homeowner.

Okay, set those thoughts aside now and clear your mind again. It’s time to watch the video from a different perspective.

Third Viewing

Put yourself in this mindset: You are inside your house, relaxing and visiting with a family friend. Perhaps you’re preparing a meal as you chat. Your spouse is out in the yard, finishing up the last of the weekend chores while you work in the kitchen and visit with your friend. Suddenly, you hear loud voices out in the yard. The voices sound angry and upset. It sounds like something is going on out there, but you can’t quite hear what’s happening and you can’t figure out what it might be. You can’t see anything out the window; the only way you can see what’s going on is to open the front door.

Here are the questions you’ll be thinking about while you watch the video this time.

Obviously, there are a lot of other questions we could ask here, but those should be enough to set the scene. Go ahead and watch the video from the perspective of the spouse or loved one inside the house now. Be realistic about your own skills and your own willingness to act. What could you do? What would you be willing to do? What would you realistically be able to do, and how quickly would you be able to do it?

Fine tuning the details

By this point, it should be obvious that there’s a lot more here that we could explore. For instance, we could watch the video from the perspective of someone who’s not even in it—a next door neighbor, or someone driving past the house.

We could ask ourselves a different set of questions. Maybe we could focus every question on some particular area such as ethics (Would you be willing to shoot and perhaps kill an unarmed attacker?) or social issues (Would your answers change if your mom was watching, or if a camera crew was recording a documentary across the street, and you knew that your every move would be shown on the six o’clock news?). If you have been struggling with a specific area of concern, it would probably be good to focus your questions in that area for awhile.

We could tweak the scenario to make it fit into our own lives more naturally. Perhaps you live in an apartment, and don’t have a yard, so nothing about this video would seem to apply to you. But you probably do occasionally visit people who have yards, so try watching the video from the perspective of the visiting friend. Would you likely be armed in their home? Would you be willing to act and take charge, even though it’s not your house—or even if your friends didn’t know you were armed when you arrived?

A lot of crime videos come from convenience stores, where surveillance cameras are common and armed robberies often happen. Those of us who don’t work as convenience-store clerks might have a hard time getting anything useful out of such videos. But using the process above, we should be able to glean something of use. If we can’t picture ourselves as the clerk, perhaps we can mentally become another customer—at the back of the store, or in the bathroom, or pulling into the parking lot, or getting gas at the pump outside.

Final thoughts

You might be wondering why I didn’t just tell you the “right” answers, or give you a tidy little checklist of lessons you should learn here. I could have done that, but it wouldn’t help much. First of all, you already know the right answers! You know all the good guys “should have” been armed. You know the homeowner “should have” kept his distance from the intruders, and that the family members “should have” kept the door shut. We need to get past these easy, simply, tidy answers and back into the real world, a place where real people do random normal stuff on normal days without any expectation of facing violence while they do it.

The second reason my own little checklist of tidy little lessons you could learn from this video wouldn’t help much is that I don’t know what you know. I don’t know what your resources are—what tools you are likely to have with you in various places, what training you’ve had, what your physical limitations might be. I don’t know what you’re willing to do or how prepared you are to do it. How could I possibly tell you what you should do, if I don’t even know such basic things about you?

Finally, I try to avoid checklists like that because my goal is to work myself out of a job. I don’t want you dependent on my ideas about how to protect yourself. If you ever face violence, I won’t be there to help you. You’ll face it on your own, with your own resources and your own inner sources of strength. You need to be prepared to find the answers for yourself, and that’s what this process is all about.