The Element of Surprise

470636_85894802If you are ever the victim of a crime, I can make this prediction with some certainty: Whatever happens will catch you off-guard. You will be taken by surprise, and you will have to move through the reaction loop before you can respond to it.

This news is probably not a surprise, but there are implications to this that bear thinking about. But first, we need to talk about why you won’t be ready for the criminal assault.

Some of it is basic common sense, of course. You’re a rational person, and you avoid people, places and situations where you expect trouble. You don’t do stupid things in stupid places with stupid people. You try to stay out of trouble’s way. You’re a law abiding citizen, and you don’t go around stirring the pot. Since this means you don’t do things that bring trouble, it’s axiomatic that the trouble that does find you, if some does, will be something you won’t see coming.

But the larger reason that trouble, if it finds you, will take you by surprise is simply this: Totally perfect situational awareness at all times and in all places and situations is simply not possible for most people.

“But I pay attention to my surroundings!” I can hear you say. “Of course I maintain situational awareness!” And, if you’re the kind of person who reads blogs like this one, you do indeed do that, perhaps a great deal better than the average person who spends their lives in Code White. But can you maintain perfect awareness, 100% of the time? Twenty four hours a day?

What about when you’re working? My job is worked in front of a computer, and there are times when my eyes are on the screen and my ears on the phone, and though I try to scan my surroundings periodically, I am not foolhardy enough to think I am immune to task fixation. It can happen to all of us, if we have enough things vying for our attention. I’ve also experienced task fixation while getting on and off my motorcycle – zipping or unzipping my jacket, donning or removing helmet and gloves, are all tasks that take time and focus. Not much of either, but the predator only needs your inattention for a second.

There are other situations where complete situational awareness is impossible. In the shower, I face several limitations on my awareness: I’m unclothed, in a room where I have limited visibility of the rest of my apartment. I don’t generally have my gun or cell phone, nor do I have many options for improvised weapons. I also only have one escape route. None of these are fatal problems, of course, and they’re par for the course in most apartments. Still, this is a situation where my ability to maintain situational awareness may be limited.

I’m sure in your life you can think of other situations where seeing trouble coming in enough time to get out of its way is difficult or impossible. Take a moment and think about those places in your own life where your attention is divided and your options are limited. I’ll wait. Once you have, let’s talk about what we can do with that knowledge.

The first preventive measure we can take is simply to be aware of our blind spots. Recognize your limits, and be prepared for them. When you’re in a situation where you know your attention will be divided, you should recognize the elevated risk and plan accordingly. Leave yourself a way out, a cushion of space an assailant would have to cross to reach you, if possible. Space is time, and time buys you options. Scan your surroundings before you engage in tasks that draw your attention and focus, complete them as quickly as possible, and take a moment to consciously reorient to your surroundings afterward.

The other key is this: Accept that the bad guy may get the drop on you, and that this does not ever mean you should stop fighting. Despite your best efforts, you might find yourself behind the curve. The first warning of attack might be when you’re already in the fight. You need to be prepared with the skills and mindset to keep responding effectively to this situation. Practice drawing with your weak hand. Train yourself to shoot from the ground, from a kneeling position, from flat on your back. Take an unarmed defense course so you can respond if you’re separated from your gun or if you can’t get to it.

And above all, instill in yourself this thought: No matter how far behind the curve I am, no matter how uneven the odds and how unfair the tactical situation, so long as I can still think and move I will keep fighting, because survival is the only acceptable option. Visualize your loved ones as you think about this; be very clear about who and what you’re fighting for. Determination alone may not win the battle, but it can up the odds dramatically.

Nice though it might be to believe we can always spot trouble in enough time to get out of the way, the reality is messier. Believing our situational awareness is perfect and infallible is, in its own way, just as self-delusional as believing trouble can’t happen to us. No matter how prepared we might be, danger can surprise us. Be prepared for this reality, and think about how you’ll respond to it, and you improve your odds of making it through that moment of surprised shock to the place of responding effectively to it.

Photo credit: stock.xchng


  1. Good ideas, and absolutely true about “KEEP FIGHTING.”

    As for when you are sleeping, in the shower, at work… When you are the most vulnerable, that’s when you need layers of barriers to intrusion and attack. I continue to be amazed at how many accounts of attack reveal that the victim didn’t have a door locked, or opened the door to a stranger – especially in the middle of the night, or in a known “bad neighborhood.”

    Locks, motion detector lights, a good dog, and many other measures will prevent, or at least slow an intruder down long enough for you to respond most, if not all the time. The criminal wants an easy target, in and out with something to make it worth his while… fast. Slow him down and he’ll probably look for someone else to rob.

    Out and about… the 20 foot rule is essential. Know what is happening and who is within that 20 foot radius as much as possible, but you don’t necessarily need to see the criminal! The thing is that if you are alert, obviously aware of your surroundings that way, the chance of a criminal attack is reduced to almost nothing. Criminals want weak, helpless, unaware victims in a situation where there is little or no opportunity for them to get hurt themselves. The exceptions would mostly be a demented, violent person with no regard for their own safety… and nobody can truly anticipate or prevent that. But these are extremely rare.

    At work… truly a serious consideration in many settings. Most of us don’t have much, if any control over our work station or environment. In most cases, people come and go frequently, often complete strangers. Add to that the fact that employees are almost universally prohibited from coming to work armed, and the set up for disaster is clear if a robber or maniac comes into your work place.

    What can you do? Talk to your manager about the problem, if possible. Arrange your workspace so that your back is not exposed to the public entry, if possible. Don’t sit with your back to the doorway or to a room full of strangers ever, if you can help it. And do the best you can not to ‘zone out’ into a completely “white” and unaware condition when you work. Concentration and attention to detail is one thing, but the ‘zone out’ is never necessary. It does take some effort and practice, however, especially if you are used to that and are otherwise comfortable working like that.

    In the end, the actual risk of attack at work in an office is very, very small. Only you and your employer can judge that, or make any changes needed. Just don’t ignore it thinking, “it can’t happen here.”

  2. Great post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: