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Understanding the Dynamics of a Life and Death Encounter

by Steven J. Kaplan

Some years ago, I was involved in an altercation with three people. These individuals had cut me off with their car, then stopped their vehicle in front of mine, and began exiting it. I saw there were three of them, and as I too began exiting my car, had a game plan formulating in my mind. One came at me from the front. The other two, armed with a brick and a bottle respectively, came at me from behind. The plan was brilliant, based upon their positions and what I anticipated to be their attacks. I would stop or hold off the front attacker, duck under the bottle which I sensed would be thrown at me from behind, and respond with a parry to the arm with the brick I thought would be brought down on my head. As I said, brilliant. There are times, however, where brilliance goes unnoticed.

The attacker from the front hesitated with his fist attack. That threw my perfect timing off, as I saw the bottle being thrown at me from behind. According to plan, I ducked, but a bit lower than I should have, since the bottle was thrown more toward my back then my head. While the bottle whizzed over my head, three bodies and a brick wound up around and on me. The fight was on.

Many elements entered into this encounter, which will be elaborated on following the finishing of the story itself. These include martial arts principles and techniques, as well as sociological, psychological, and social-psychological. It is hoped that once these are all explored, the reader of this article will be better able to react and later understand what took place if she ever finds him/herself in a similar situation.

There are certain principles that one should follow when being attacked by multiple assailants. One is to back up as quickly as possible into a corner, so that no one can attack you from behind. In my situation, the attack took place in the middle of a major intersection. There was no corner to back into. Another principle is to feign fear, thereby increasing the odds that the attackers may relax their guard both mentally and physically. This is important for the next principle, the all-important element of surprise. When they least expect it due to your backing up and feigning fear, springing forward with a kiai and your own attacks will startle them for a second or two, all the time you need to follow your "game plan". This game plan consists of taking out the leader and using him for a shield (if possible), while threatening to snap his neck or rip his nose off his face if the others will not back off. If they do, fine. If not, it may be wise to indeed rip his nostrils with your two fingers, letting the others see just how "crazy" you are. This too was not possible in my situation, given the physical environment I was in, along with three bodies already on top of me.

Allow me to briefly pause to say that this and any other game plans and principles become almost irrelevant if the attackers have firearms. This article deals only with unarmed (no firearms) assailants versus an unarmed defender. Further, let me again remind the reader that we are talking about a life and death encounter, where any and all means of defense is justified.

At this point in the fight, I fell back to yet another essential principle: protecting vital areas. I went down on one knee (protecting testicles), put my chin on my chest (protecting face), placed my arms in a vertical position, palms facing my face, in front of my chest (protecting solar plexus, stomach, and groin), and became the unhappy recipient of kicks and punches all over me. Still, my vital areas, i.e., those parts of my body which could have subjected me to a knockout, expose me to fatal blows, or permanently maim me, were protected. I could not, however, remain the human punching bag indefinitely.

There was a part of me which was able to briefly hope that out of the many who are watching this drama unfold, there would be one or more who would have, or would have attempted to, break up the fight, or call police. None of these possible scenarios occurred.

I then made a decision to act. While down on one knee, I arose with a kiai as my hand attacked the leader’s testicles in front of me. I stood up, face the two behind me, and as I moved towards them with hands in a fighting posture, they followed the leader running to his car, and they all took off. An off-duty officer, one of the bystanders, came over and asked me if I was all right. I felt like hitting him as a thank you for his assistance. I then returned to my car, drove home, wrote a thank you letter to my sensei for his teachings, which I truly believe to this day saved my life, and crawled into bed to begin a month of painful recovery.


Let us now examine some of the dynamics of the story. To begin with, we have the psychology of the bully and gangs coming into play. The bully gets his "courage" from his perception that there will be no resistance from his victim. In this case, how could there be resistance against not just him, but against his backup? His backup, which we may call a gang, derives its "courage" from the individual members. It is easy to be mean and tough and vicious when each one thinks the others will serve as a barrier against retaliation. Even if the individual members of the gang are in fact "tough", the negative thoughts and actions become heightened in the group setting.

The bully in particular, and gangs in general, have great feelings of inferiority. These feelings originated in childhood and over time were heightened and escalated. Rather than compensate for these feelings on a socially useful side of life, e.g., find a job or role whereby one can be a helpful, contributing member of society, the inferiority feelings are compensated for on the useless side of life, where negative, exploitative, and hurtful behaviors are resorted to. It's not necessarily the case that this person wants to hurt others in particular. They need to feel superior to the emotional and psychological position they feel themselves to be in. In order to achieve this position via their compensation, they feel that hurting others is the best means, while at the same time allowing them to safeguard and protect their self-esteem from failure. The members of a gang look to be their leader for direction. This is why taking the leader out, if possible, at the beginning of the defender’s counter attack, is a wise decision.

It is important to note that often, as was the case in the situation described, there is a criminal history of antisocial behaviors in these individuals, and they have developed over time an attitude that they are absolutely correct in assuming that they have a right to hurt others, and/or take what others had to work for. What began as an early experiment with negative behaviors as a compensatory measure developed into a lifestyle where things are "due" them.

The element of fear additionally enters into this entire dynamic. In the case we’re describing, things escalated too quickly for fear to set into my head. Generally, it is when one has the time to assess the situation, conjure up the worst possible scenario that could occur, and then act as if it already had, that fear in various stages sets in. In this scenario being discussed, survival techniques were resorted to almost without thought. This was the result of repeated and effective training. Fear, however, manifested itself in other ways. Here, it was in the form of bystander apathy. One may recall the infamous case in 1964 of Kitty Genovese, who was attacked at 3 A.M. one day as she was returning home from work. She cried out in terror as she was being murdered for almost 30 minutes. Neighbors had come to their windows to witness the scene, but absolutely no one called the police. It was later found that there were 38 witnesses, none of whom did anything. They were "hooked", i.e., distressed, disgusted, fascinated by the goings on, but did not turn away. While in the Genovese case some equated it to watching a fire or drowning or car accident, the difference in my situation was that people were indeed in a positive position, especially in a group, where they could have in fact attempted to do something. No one was willing to make the important first move. Perhaps they assessed the situation and felt that the attackers would turn on them. Maybe they felt the situation was not a true emergency, and at worst, some unfortunate would merely get beat up. There are many social-psychological theories on bystander apathy, but I posit that in the scenario described above, it was the overwhelming fear coupled with what they perceived could happen to them that prevented any assistance. Even the off-duty police officer seemed frozen by fear.

We have a briefly reviewed a scenario and examined from multiple perspectives. Protecting one's back from rear attacks, feigning fear, the element of surprise, and using your most against his least are principles most useful for not just martial artists, but anyone who finds him/herself in a comparable situation. Coupled with this are the social-psychological dynamics that may be used to understand just what goes on during and following the attack and defense. It is hoped that this knowledge will be most useful and helpful to all who read it, in or out of formal law-enforcement, and make their own reactions and responses the most effective to ensure their safety.

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