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Why Self Defence Won’t Work Against Terrorists

April 20, 2012

This week sees the beginnings of the court case of Anders Behring Breivik, perpetrator of the massacre in Norway last year, that country’s worst atrocity in modern peacetime.  Given the subject matter, don’t expect any of the funny in this week’s blog.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something.   The difficult question for me, with my personal safety hat on, is what can ‘self defence’ do against such indiscriminate violence?

Having given this some considerable thought, the answer I keep coming back to is, well, not a lot.  No amount of behavioural knowledge, communication skills, training or reality based martial arts can do much against a deranged man with a high-powered rifle, a bomb and a plan.

This post tries to look at why and, in doing so, hold a mirror up to such acts in the hope of bettering your understanding of when it can help.

Terrorists don’t care about hurting you

In your common, every day assault, you nearly always play an active role – either by your behaviour or your lifestyle.  And with responsibility comes control – we can change the signals we give off, the places we go to, the people we mix with – and make our lives a little safer.

Not so the terrorist.  In fact one of the most terrifying things about terrorism is that it’s not personal.  It doesn’t matter who you are; old or young, man or woman, parent or child.  Terrorism is not born out of a desire to harm specific individuals, but of a desire to harm an entire society.  This is, in fact, the point – terrorists want us to live in fear all the time, not knowing where the next attack will come – they want us to feel our very lifestyle is the reason for their violence.

Terrorists aren’t violent through emotion, they’re violent through idealism

Most types of violence and aggression are born of a desire bring about harm; to damage another person in some way. Most of the time, this is driven by the base, animalistic urges of anger, sex or territory.  All of the time, your attacker must raise their emotional state to a level where they are able to justify their attack.  By the time violence actually occurs, it has been a long and complicated psychological path to get there – even if this path was invisible to you.  Once you understand this path to violence, though, you can use tactics and techniques to slow its process and even remove the threat entirely.

Not so the terrorist.  The terrorist feels no anger toward their specific, but to the society they belong to.  As such, it is not possible to use reason to return them to a rational state.  You, the victim, are not the target – you are a tool, a means to an end, a sacrifice that must be made.  To achieve this outlook, you have been thoroughly de-humanised by your attacker – emotional appeals will hold no purchase.

Terrorists don’t want t fight

A fight implies a level of exchange between parties, either physical or verbal, wherein each party vies for advantage.  People engaged in fights do so with one objective – to win the fight.  There is always another option – not to fight.  Self defence is not fighting.  Self defence is preservation and any violent act committed in its name should be to reduce risk and escape – not to gain advantage, as this then becomes attack, not defence.

Not so the terrorist.  They have no interest in ‘winning’ a fight with their victims, and so their violence cannot be nullified by refusing to meet them on their own terms.  Attacks are selected and planned to minimise all risk to the terrorist.  Locations, timings and methodology are all designed to ensure success with minimal risk to the terrorist – or worse, that the terrorist intends to become a martyr ad so has no consideration for personal risk.

This is not true of more casual violent crime, or even muggings / sexual assaults, where it is always possible to make the attacker feel fear and manipulate their own sense of self-preservation, gaining the advantage.*

*Of course, there’s always the exception to any rule – in this case being the Scottish passer-by who, during a failed terrorist attack at an airport, pulled a still-on-fire terrorist from his bomb packed car and punched him in the head whilst he was still on fire.  Welcome to Scotland.

So I’m buggered then?

Not quite.  Let’s not forget that your statistical risk of becoming victim of a terrorist attack is about 1 in 3 million each and every year.

Terrorism is designed to make us fear own very society, our ideology and our way of life.  Terrorists want us to live in fear because of not who we are as individuals, but who we are as a collective.  Our best defence against this tactic is to prove that it won’t work – thus, hopefully, removing its’ validity.

Don’t give them what they want – fear, subordination, to win, to have a reward for their actions.  That doesn’t mean you have to beat them – just play a different game.  This is the one true rule of terrorism, muggings, assaults, sex crimes, hate crimes, or any other kind of violence.  Remove the reward for violence and, for the most part, you remove the violence itself.

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2 Comments
  1. Excellent analysis, Nathaniel. Fear can be such a counterproductive emotion in many situations.

    • Thank you Margaret, high raise indeed! Fear is also easily confused with danger, leading to poor judgement calls – managing fear has the bonus effect of more effective decision making, which in turn reduces risk. An all round good thing then!

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