I want you to do a thought experiment. Relax, take a deep breath, and answer a few questions. First, imagine that no one is going to help you and your children are in danger of starving. What would you be willing to do?
Would you steal food?
Would you rob (use violence or the threat of violence to steal) for food or money for food?
Would you kill?
These are the first questions, the easy ones. To save your children, what would you be willing to do? What lines would you cross? I use ‘to save your children’ in the question because most people imagine their own starvation as something noble or heroic. They imagine they could ‘take it’ and make sacrifices and stick to a moral code but can’t really imagine what the changing blood sugar, fear and desperation would do to their minds. So we stick with children for this little thought experiment.
Ready for the next series of questions?
Would you prostitute yourself? Would you prostitute you children to feed them? Prostitute just one of the children to feed the others? Or maybe sell one and pretend you did not know why the child was wanted?
I don’t know why people hesitate more on these questions than on the question of killing, but they do. Murder is officially more evil than prostitution, right? Maybe, in this thought experiment, murder for food is a little more abstract and easier to imagine in soft focus. Maybe.
More questions. Whatever strategy you chose to feed your children, you are an adaptable human being. Would you eventually become okay with your decision? Even self-righteous about it? You are the one killing, stealing or pimping… would you really blame yourself for that? Or find someone else to blame for driving you to it?
Would you eventually tell yourself that what you are doing is noble and right? That your victims are the bad guys? If it turned out to be successful and you moved from the edge of starvation to affluence, would you quit doing the crimes? Or would it have become a way of life? And would you teach your children to follow in your footsteps?
Play with those thoughts for a moment.
We live in an unbelievably affluent society. Our modern response to the possibility of hunger, much less starvation, doesn’t involve getting a spear or laying traps, but going to a government office and filing paperwork. No one seems to see anything odd about that.
It is so easy to forget, when you have never personally been hungrier than you wanted to be (fasting is a completely different experience than starving) that the possibility of children starving has been the norm for much of human history. It is still the norm in many places in the world.
Yet we are surprised when people act from this world-view. We get self-righteous and indignant. That may be a justified attitude, but it is not useful.
In modern times, this threat isn’t about food. That little thought experiment we just did? That desperation that drives you to do things you know are wrong? Things that become less wrong the longer you do them until you feel fully justified and righteous? That is where addicts live and it drives a huge amount of the crime in this country.
This has profound implications for avoiding and de-escalating violence stemming from this level. It is much different from the social conflict we are used to. Everything you know about protecting people’s feelings or deferring to status or showing respect is irrelevant here. The threat wants stuff. Stuff that he can sell to feed his addiction. It is not about his feelings or his past or his inner child. It is about his need.
The only things that will work on the threat are the things that would work on you if your children were starving. The thought experiment will help you empathize with the threat’s state of mind and help you avoid the traps.
What would you do if your children were starving? How far would you go? How far will the threat go?
How would you set up your crimes?
Would you prefer to burglarize an empty house? Threaten in privacy? Use overwhelming force from ambush or invade a home and catch the victim(s) off guard?
The threat will do the same thing and for the same reasons. Almost every incident of conflict in your life has been social, and almost all of the social incidents had one thing in common: an audience.
When someone switches to predatory violence, an audience magically transforms into witnesses. This is the primary clue: IF THERE ARE NO WITNESSES PREPARE FOR PREDATORY VIOLENCE.
It’s not a switch that most make quickly or easily. No matter how ineptly, incipient criminals have been socialized to some extent. They had a parent or parents. The attended at least some school. Their first time using or threatening to use violence, they are amateurs. They are nervous and it shows. Instead of using the weapon for either immediate violence or to take control, they treat it like an amulet, like a cross to keep away vampires. The best I can describe it is that like most inexperienced citizens they don’t look like they are using a gun so much as hiding behind one.
In the first crimes, the threat is often hesitant to use force. Sometimes the victim reads that and attempts to use social skills to end the situation. When you see someone who is hesitant and fearful trying to exert power, what are the social strategies? Often to intimidate or punk him out. You see the weakness, the line where he should break and you push it: “You don’t have the guts to pull the trigger!”
But this isn’t social. Social is two monkeys vying for status. An inexperienced predator is trying to teach himself to stop acting like a monkey and start acting like a leopard. What would a leopard do? Oh, yeah. Kill the stupid monkey.
There is a common pattern of a new criminal hesitating until he starts to lose control and then using massive force to regain control. His first extreme violent crime.
As the threat becomes more experienced, there are some changes. One is what I call ‘othering’. We can use more force on things different than ourselves. We can squash bugs, shoot deer, butcher livestock…but we fight people. The more we can convince ourselves that someone is not like us, the more force we can use, the faster we can use it and the less psychological damage is associated with it.
Othering is a skill, and as a criminal becomes more experienced he becomes better at it. He can use force, even extreme force, without hesitation. The humanity of his victims gradually ceases to be an element restricting his actions.
What does restrict his actions becomes a very cold risk-reward analysis. What will he get and what risks will he run?
Violence, especially extreme violence, draws a lot of attention and carries potentially long sentences. The more blood, the greater chance of being caught. Experienced criminals think in these terms. Pressing close, making a citizen nervous so that the citizen offers some cash is zero risk, at most a city ordinance violation for the hard-to-prove “aggressive panhandling.”
This implies three strategies for making you an unlikely victim:
1. Lower the potential rewards of the risk/rewards equation. This is not as effective as you might think. There is no element of social justice to the equation, no morality of ‘robbing the rich.’ Many criminals steal from people poorer than themselves, because no matter who they steal from, the robber will have more, and that is the goal. A local contact (this is two years out of date) said that a heavy heroin habit in my city runs $400 dollars a day. Stealing items other than cash, he can rarely get more than 10% of the value… so an addict may have to steal $4000 worth of goods every day. That’s volume and under the press of withdrawals, most threats can’t afford to be picky. This is a one-way street, by the way. You can’t lower the potential rewards enough to make you completely safe, but you can raise the rewards enough to influence the criminal to take greater risks. See below.
2. Raise the risk. Every self-defense instructor’s advice to walk with confidence and express self-value fits right here. The threat may feel confidant he could take anyone, but why artificially raise the risk? Attack the easy. Same as wolves and injured caribou. Staying in crowds. Attracting witnesses. Dialing 911 on your cell. Letting it be known that you are armed…and this is a tricky one, because a gun is a very valuable thing. Admitting you are carrying one MAY make someone choose another victim… or it may make him take extra precautions and use more violence faster to get your weapon.
3. Shake his confidence in the equation. When a threat approaches, he expects certain behavior-- maybe a scared glancing around or nervous fumbling. Maybe pleading. A lot of victims just become passive. Someone who seems too calm makes the threat wonder if he has missed something. The possibility of a weapon is often more effective than the presence of a weapon. A nod or wave in a random direction may make the think threat he has missed allies.
If you understand the type of threat, you can adapt your tactics and better avoid the situation. If you cannot avoid the situation, you can choose tactics at the appropriate level of force and, possibly more important, articulate you decisions.