Real-Life Self-Defense Lessons Learned From These 3 Case Studies


Practicing martial arts, including Taekwondo, is a fantastic activity for everyone. Martial arts promote coordination, confidence, focus, inner strength, and a healthy and active lifestyle. However, it is worth remembering that martial arts are also designed to teach effective self-defense for a sometimes dangerous world. Until recently, we didn't have a reliable mechanism for judging the "street realism" of the self-defense we were learning and teaching. But the age of Youtube and online news repositories has changed all that. It's now possible to analyze real cases of use of force and extract practical lessons from them. And that's what exactly we've done. Here are some real-life lessons taken from real-life examples of transitional spaces.

Beware of Transitional Spaces

Case Study: a criminal suspect in Orem, who was involved in an earlier incident, fled to the Macey's parking and attacked a woman in an attempt to steal her car. The police were not on the scene, but fortunately the carjacking was thwarted by an alert bystander, and his concealed carry permit. This sheep dog understood that he occupied a "transitional space," which is prime real estate for bad guys. His situational awareness likely saved the life of an innocent woman that day.

Takeaways: Transitional spaces are the spaces between where you're coming from and where you're going. These spaces, such as gas stations, alleys, and Macey's parking lots are ideal hunting grounds for bad guys. Like a lion to a watering hole, predators know that these are environments likely to be full of prey, since they are all places we have to be from time to time. In our modern, tech-addicted world, we are easily distracted and can be attacked without notice. Sometimes the attacker doesn't even know whether he's going to victimize someone until the last minute. By definition, transitional spaces aren't avoidable. But we can recognize that they pose an increased risk of danger, put our phones in our pockets, and be actively aware of our surroundings.

Don't Go Places Alone

Case Study: In February of 1994, a man walked into the dry cleaners in Georgia with a gun. Police said he demanded the young woman working there open the register. Whether he had come in there with intent beyond the money or not, it soon became clear that this woman would be unable to resist him physically. He attacked her in as craven a fashion as is imaginable. Even though this case was eventually solved, it took decades. DNA evidence evidence came to light, which eventually led to the identification of the attacker. Police found him in jail on an unrelated crime, but the charges he faces now will be a lot steeper.

Takeaways: In this case, the victim was apparently scheduled to work alone. A lot of dry cleaners are very small, 2-3 person operations, so it may not have been practical to schedule anyone else with her that night. But managers shouldn't schedule women to close up by themselves if it can be helped. Being alone can be a risky proposition in many situations: working alone, walking alone, and (God help you) jogging alone! Violent crimes are often crimes of opportunity, which means as self-defenders, we need to give them as little opportunity as humanly possible. This case also demonstrates that despite the best efforts of our police and the criminal justice system, they can't be everywhere at once. They can't prevent crimes, and sometimes they can't even solve them after the fact. I'm a big fan of law enforcement, but we need to have an honest understanding of their limitations, and prepare to protect ourselves in ways that they can't.

Situational Awareness

Case study: In a scene that is far too common on the Wasatch Front, a jogger in Taylorsville was recently grabbed in a bear hug while she was on her run on the Jordan River Trail. She resisted as aggressively and violently as she could, causing her attacker to release her and flee. She called the police immediately, and, as of this writing, police are still searching for the attacker. Police think this same man may have assaulted other women on the same stretch of trail, which is hardly surprising. The Jordan River and Provo River trails are famous hunting grounds for predators, and I'd be surprised if the Murdock trail doesn't have the same problem. This isn't even the first time I've used an attack like this from the Jordan River Trail as a self-defense case study!

Takeaways: The first thing I love about this story is how aggressively the would-be victim fought. One of the most common obstacles to effective self-defense is something I call "mental inertia." Human beings are creatures of routine; our brains don't like to work any harder than they have to, so they steer us inexorably into patterns of behavior and perception. We get comfortable in those patterns. But problems arise when an unexpected or unusual situation occurs, for which we don't have any pre-built mental framework. It takes a surprisingly long time for most of us to reconcile this new and surprising reality with our normal experience. Decisive action is delayed while thoughts occur to us such as, "Is this really happening right now? This can't really be happening, not here in Happy Valley! I mean it seems to be happening, but is there any chance that I could be mis-perceiving the situation? How should I respond? If I scream or get violent, would that be inappropriate?"

That seems crazy, but this inertia is very real! This woman went from 0 to "I will end you" in seconds or less! It makes me wonder if she's had some training, because it very often takes intentionality to build the neural pathway that gets you from 0 to "I will end you." That's why one of my favorite self-defenders recommends that we regularly practice the "savage poet" drill:

One last thought from this case: Situational awareness is perhaps the most important skill for self-defenders to master. I've said before that situational awareness has practical application even outside of self-defense. Situational awareness is basically like defensive driving for life. It means being aware of what's going on around us and identifying possible threats and orienting yourself in dynamically evolving situations. Being alert regarding our surroundings can make a big difference in avoiding danger or at least allowing ourselves the chance to respond to a threat sooner, which can mean the difference between life and death.

When I say "self-defense," people think I'm talking about fighting. But if I'm teaching self-defense properly, then you'll have the skills and habits necessary to avoid a dangerous situation in the first place, which is a preferable outcome by far. I wasn't an eyewitness to this attack, so I can't say for certain what this woman's level of situational awareness was. But whatever level it was at, heightening it could only have helped. It sounds like this attack was a bit of an ambush, so it's unlikely that she'd have been able to notice him any sooner than she did. But improved situational awareness might have advised her against jogging alone in an area with the reputation that it has. I'm always hesitant to be critical of a victim's behavior, especially when they responded to a bad situation so admirably. But I have to be honest about the lessons we can learn from the case. If critics want to be angry about that, I'm just going to have to learn to live with it.

The safest course of action is to avoid a fight before it even starts. Being situationally aware, especially in transitional areas, avoiding distractions, and keeping together in groups can help us remain safe in an otherwise dangerous world. And when that doesn't work, knowing how to waste a fool is also a good tool to have in the tool bag.


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