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The Dilemma of Paris -- Self-Defense in the Age of Modern Terrorism

ParisNancy and I went to an Asian restaurant in Davenport, Iowa on Saturday evening and were seated in a room all to ourselves. The waitress started a small fireplace. It was very relaxing.

And then I realized that if a terrorist with a gun walked into the door of the restaurant, we were sitting ducks. There was no escape.

What a shame that we live in a world where this is something we think about at a time when we should be simply relaxing and enjoying ourselves.

The terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend hit a lot of us in the civilized world like a sidekick to the stomach. Many of us watched news reports from the restaurants and concert hall with the same thoughts -- what if we had been there when gunmen walked in? How do we protect ourselves against a terrorist attack?

I do not carry a gun. I don't even own a gun. Nancy and I have considered buying one to keep in the house, but I have always resisted the "concealed carry" idea. All we need in a world of hair-trigger tempers and road rage is a population of frustrated people carrying firearms.

And yet, self-defense has been my hobby since 1973. What good is self-defense in an age of terrorism?

For decades, I have endured comments such as, "You know kung-fu? I'll shoot you before you can use your kung-fu. I know Smith & Wesson."

That's a silly comment, because studies have shown that if you have a gun on you, a motivated attacker will be on top of you before you can pull the gun. And besides, you don't have to worry about defending yourself against a guy who practices kung-fu. You have to worry about the criminal who wants to kill you -- right now. He isn't messing around and he is not going to warn you in time to pull your gun.

On the other hand, you can spend decades working on empty-hand self-defense techniques only to be blown away by a radical jihadist with an assault weapon because you were seated in the wrong part of a restaurant.

None of us want to be paranoid. It is not healthy to constantly feel the urge to look over your shoulder. We must be able to relax. But we must also expect the unexpected.

And so here are a few things you can begin doing as a safety precaution:

  • Always scope out the exits. Know an escape route if you need one.
  • If possible, request a restaurant table near an escape route -- an exit or near the kitchen -- away from the front door.
  • Sit so that your back is not to the door. Sit so that you have a view of what is happening.
  • In a public place such as a mall, be mindful of who is around you and where the exits are located. When you enter a store, be aware of exits into the back rooms. Those exits sometimes lead to the outside or into another hallway, or there may be storage areas where you can hide.
  • Some people say if you are in a store and employees start running in a particular direction, follow them because they may have practiced an emergency exit drill.
  • Movie theaters are difficult because if you sit in the main part of the theater, and an attacker with a gun walks in, you are typically a sitting duck. One possibility is to sit closer to the exits, which are often next to the screen. In older theaters, there were also exits at the top of the stairs, but most theaters now are built differently and there is no exit at the top.
  • Most importantly -- Remain Mindful and alert to what is happening around you. This does not mean to remain in a hyper-vigilant "fight or flight" mode all the time. It means to pay attention to people, sounds, and the atmosphere around you. 

I have written about an incident that happened in Chicago a couple of years ago. Nancy and I were walking along the shops on Michigan Avenue when the crowd of people on the sidewalks and in the stores began getting larger. There were more young people and I noticed that their voices were growing louder as they talked and laughed.

After a few minutes, I realized that something did not feel right to me.

"Let's go back in the opposite direction," I said, and I held Nancy's hand and guided her away from the shopping area, back toward our hotel.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"My self-defense radar went off," I said. "Something isn't right."

Chicago Violence 2We got clear of the crowds and stopped for dinner, then returned to our hotel room in time to turn on the 10:00 news. The lead story told of how bands of young people had started running through the crowds attacking shoppers on Michigan Avenue at exactly the location we were shopping. It had started just a few minutes after my "Self-Defense Radar" had pinged. 

Nancy was impressed. She had not noticed anything, but I had remained mindful, aware of what was happening around me. It was not anything I had been doing consciously -- I was just being mindful as I normally am.

As I was reminded that night in Chicago, the best self-defense is to not be there in the first place. If you know of a bar where fights sometimes happen, stay away from that bar. If you are walking down the street and see some people hanging out that give you a bad vibe, cross the street or -- better yet -- turn and go the opposite way. Being a little inconvenienced is much better than being attacked.

I live in the Quad Cities, on the border of Iowa and Illinois. This is a pretty safe place compared to many American cities. But all you need is one mentally ill loner, or a radical young man or woman who decides to align their goals with ISIS and you can find yourself among others who say, "We never thought it would happen here."

But we cannot remain locked in our homes. We cannot be afraid to go out. If we are afraid, the terrorists achieve one of their goals -- to terrorize. So relax, breathe deeply, remain centered, enjoy your life, but remain mindful at all times.


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Connie Grayson

Beautifully said. I especially agree with the thought that if we allow terrorists to stop us from doing and enjoying what we normally do, they win.

Your cousin


Thanks, Connie!


Astute observations Ken. Your experience in Chicago is a perfect example of trusting your subconscious awareness that I've retold to my students ever since you related it to me. A few observations:

1) You are entitled to your opinions about concealed carry, but facts do not support them. Liberalization of concealed carry rules in various states has led to no increase in "heat of the moment" violent crime, with firearms or without. Typically people become more calm and able to walk away from a disagreement once they start carrying. Violent hot heads are likely already criminals who carry or not as they see fit regardless of laws. Obviously you are free to carry or not as you see fit, but the fact is that widespread concealed carry by law abiding citizens in the U.S. has proven to be a net positive, and carry by criminals will happen regardless of concealed carry laws.

2) SOMETIMES a bad guy may get too close to you and be on you before you could access a weapon . . . but sometimes not. MANY relatively untrained people defend themselves with firearms every year in the U.S. by managing to bring them into play before contact or before decisive contact. For those circumstances where the bad guy is on you too quickly, hopefully you've trained to protect yourself while unarmed, and to fight your way to your weapon if possible. A firearm could be invaluable in certain circumstances, not needed or not accessible in others. Everyone finds his/her own balance.

3) In evaluating our self-defense, we must be careful not to confuse feelings with facts. On one hand, many parts of the world have been dealing with far more terrorism than France or the U.S. for a very long time. On the other hand, an American's odds of being caught in the middle of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil are infinitesimal. We're all still much more likely to be struck down by poor health, accidents, "normal" criminals, etc. than by terrorists. Hopefully national policies and local law enforcement will allow this to continue to be so.

4) I think Awareness should be a process of appreciating all the beauty of the actual world around you, moment by moment. Just stay engaged with the actual world (as opposed to the virtual world in your head, or the electronic one in your hand) and trust your subconscious to alert you to things out of whack, even if you're not consciously sure what they are. The fact is you may not be able to stop a terrorist who charges into your cafe and shoots you first, any better than you could stop a truck that loses control and plows into your cafe directly towards your table (probably more likely). Beyond that, exercise your non-hostile awareness, trust your subconscious, react appropriately (as you have trained) and immediately to avoid and counter if necessary. If worst comes to worst, hopefully your training and available weapons will prevail. If not . . . live a good life so you'll have minimal regret and maximal positive impact on those most important to you, while enjoying the hell out of it.


Thank you for your spirited response!! I like it. Although, when it comes to being surprised and overtaken before you get your gun out, it seems that some martial artists I have come to know and respect indicate that most people are not prepared for real violence, so it would follow that, unless you were really of the mindset of Guided Chaos, which most concealed carry people are probably not (I would guess), a real attack would still be surprising and overwhelming, even if you were packing heat.

But my opinions are not gospel. And I am not opposed to concealed carry. Not really. I just think it's a sad comment on society. Personally, I would rather not carry a gun, and I don't find it necessary in my daily life, but depending on where I lived, where I worked, or the circumstances, I would carry.

You can also find information to support either side on this. For one thing, a gun in the house makes a woman less safe, according to some.

Also, it may not be clear yet if more guns equals less crime.

And this is a fascinating story that points out some studies that show you are more likely to be shot if you carry a gun.

In the Paris incidents, concealed carry might not have helped that much because at least some of the terrorists were wearing explosive vests. However, if I found myself in that situation, I can assure you that I would much rather have a gun than be unarmed.

I still don't want every yahoo on the road to be packing heat. Because we do have shootings that stem from road rage, as happened a couple of weeks ago when the 6 year old kid was shot to death by an angry driver.

It is a complex issue. It is simply my opinion that more guns is not the answer for any society, unless we live in the world of Mad Max. Perhaps that's where we are headed. Fortunately, I'm too old to have to worry too much about that. But younger people do.

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