Editor's Note: Although the world can be a dangerous place, one does not have to passively wait for acts of violence to occur. This series provides the tools to help anticipate, avoid and respond to danger. Part I explores the mindset needed to respond to a dangerous situation.
The world is a dangerous place. Media reports of journalist beheadings in Syria, mall attacks in Kenya and school shootings in the United States provide regular reminders of this fact. In reality, violence and terror have always been a part of the human condition. The Chinese built the Great Wall for reasons other than tourism. Today's "terrorists" are far less dangerous to society as a whole than were the Viking berserkers and barbarian tribes who terrorized Europe for centuries, but even though we live in a safer society today, ordinary people can still face multiple threats on a daily basis ranging from terrorists to members of organized crime.
Although there is danger in the world, one does not have to become resigned to fate and passively wait for acts of violence to occur. There are some simple steps ordinary people can take to help them avoid danger — or to at least mitigate its impact. Stratfor has put together this series of articles as a resource to give individuals, families and businesses the building blocks to help anticipate, avoid and respond to danger.
Before one can react to a situation, one must first have the proper mindset. This mindset has three elements: recognition of the threat, accepting responsibility for one's own security and the will to use the tools provided in the rest of this series.
Personal and collective security are built upon the realization that threats exist. One must accept that there are evil people in the world who seek to rob, rape, kidnap or kill. Ignoring or denying this reality will not make the threat go away. Indeed, ignorance and denial work to ensure that a person's chances of quickly recognizing a threat and avoiding it are very slim. Quite frankly, many, if not most, victims of violence become victims because they are oblivious to the threat or because they have somehow denied the fact that they can be victimized.
The Dangers of Denial
A prime example of denial endangering security is the case of Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief in Lebanon who was kidnapped March 16, 1985. The day before his abduction, Anderson was driving in Beirut when a car pulled in front of his and nearly blocked him in. Due to the traffic situation — and perhaps a bit of luck — Anderson was able to avoid what he thought was an automobile accident. Even though there had been a long list of American citizens and other Westerners kidnapped in Beirut, including journalists like CNN Beirut bureau chief Jerry Levin, Anderson did not think he would be targeted, and therefore did not see the near-miss for what it was: a failed kidnapping attempt. But the next day, Anderson's luck ran out when the same vehicle successfully blocked him in the same location. Anderson was abducted at gunpoint and held hostage for the next six years and nine months.
Many victims of abductions and attempted assassinations are often able to look back and describe in detail how they were surveilled, recalling how their assailants planned and executed the attacks against them. They also acknowledge having had indications that they were about to be attacked, such as ominous feelings about particular people or situations or a subtle suspicion that things were not quite "right." Because of their mindset at the time, however, they failed to heed the warning signs and take action.
In other cases, some people such as journalists, missionaries and aid workers fail to protect themselves by choosing to forgo the necessary physical security for the sake of accomplishing their business. In such cases, these individuals and their organizations need to establish tripwires to alert them when their mission becomes too risky. These people need to avoid the form of denial that says they cannot be targeted because of their mission or their ties to the local community. History clearly shows that neither can protect them from heavily armed criminals or terrorists.
People will also often adopt a mindset of denial because they believe they are not a big enough target to warrant an attack, so they ignore the signs of an impending operation directed against them, believing the operational activity they see is directed against another, more substantial target. It is not until after the attack that they realize the activity they observed was indeed directed against them.
Recognizing Real Threats
Denial and complacency, however, are not the only hazardous states of mind. Paranoia and obsessive concern about one's safety and security can be just as dangerous. There are times when it is important to be on heightened alert — a woman walking alone in a dark parking lot is one example — but people are simply not designed to operate in a state of heightened awareness for extended periods. The body's fight-or-flight response is helpful in a sudden emergency, but a constant stream of adrenalin and stress leads to mental and physical fatigue, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a person to identify a threat when presented with one.
Once individuals recognize that there are threats, they must then understand that they are responsible for their own security. Too many people mistakenly believe that security is something for which only police and security forces are responsible. The truth is, governments cannot protect everyone and everything from every potential threat. They simply lack the resources to do so. Even authoritarian regimes have proven incapable of protecting everything. This means that people must do their part to help keep themselves, their families and their homes safe. Indeed, individual citizens who look out for each other are also very important for collective security.
Finally, it is important that people have the will and self-discipline to practice the things that we will discuss in the rest of this series — topics such as situational awareness, developing an understanding of the environment around them, analyzing their own security vulnerabilities and finally, taking action if they see an attack developing.