Not long ago I was on a long drive and as the miles passed, I began to ponder fear, our human reactions to it, how different those reactions can be even between people of similar backgrounds, etc. My thoughts came to focus on

  1. Various reactions to fear anyone can experience, and
  2. Motivations for some of those reactions.

As I think about it, there are various reactions to a threat anyone might experience. “Fight or flight” is the most basic all-consuming phrase we use, but there are certainly far more potential reactions than that as have been documented in various texts regarding interpersonal violence, particularly in combat. Before I get into articulating my thoughts, let me provide a few definitions courtesy of

Panic: a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior

Flee: to run away, as from danger or pursuers; take flight.

Defend: to ward off attack from; guard against assault or injury

Attack: to set upon in a forceful, violent, hostile, or aggressive way, with or without a weapon

Offense: the act of attacking; attack or assault

Those definitions given, let’s get into the meat of the matter. When a person is attacked, a threat perceived, we’ve long learned that fight or flight are the most common responses. Many trainers today disagree and will add into that list things such as posturing, negotiation, etc. I thought about the actual reactions I’ve witnessed most often on the street and feel they should be delineated.

Panic: as defined above, may produce hysterical or irrational behavior. If a person can be rendered so afraid as to do absolutely nothing but cower immobile in that fear, then I submit to you that such action – or lack thereof – is irrational. Any thinking being would realize that escaping that which causes them fear is good. However, a person experiencing panic can be incapable of doing ANYTHING. They would be in total shut down.

Flee: The obvious “flight” reaction. Something scares me so I literally run away from it as fast as my legs and coordination will permit. I would observe that running away is the most pacifistic reaction to a presented threat. There is nothing defensive in it other than the escape. Running away creates no threat to the attacker and isn’t assured of removing the potential victim from that which scared them. People are chased all the time – so fleeing is no sure solution to removing the fear.

Defend: This is, to me, the most basic physical reaction. Simply blocking incoming blows / kicks or pulling away from grabs. It is totally defensive and not aggressive in any way. However, it is important to note that any person capable of performing these defensive acts has shown either an incapacity / inability to run away or has displayed enough courage to stand and face the fear, even if only using defensive techniques.

Equal offense: When I thought about this level, I considered two kindergarteners fighting over the disputed ball on the playground. Blow for blow they each attack, in limited form, waiting for the other to back down. The “equal offense” in other words is the one for one hit – you hit me, I hit you. You hit me, I hit you. We both may be hitting hard each time, but ultimately the winner will be the person who can stand and accept / absorb the most pain. This type of offense stems from the reaction, as I think about it, of “Hey, you can’t do that to me or I’ll do it right back to you.”

Greater Offense: In my mind, if you must fight, this is the level of response you should fight from. That belief is probably a side-effect of the decades of law enforcement training I’ve received, and the way force delivery was dictated on a matrix. This is the “one up” rule law enforcement traditionally operates on. However, it’s not the way law enforcement always worked. This is the “you’ve got a knife; I’ve got a gun” mentality AND THE WILLINGNESS TO USE IT.

Overwhelming / Excessive Offense: or what I’ve, in the past, referred to as “the playstation mentality”. This is using an RPG to kill that rifleman. No matter what threat you present, I use the largest weapon in my arsenal to destroy you. In line with the USMC Axiom: “Always use a pile driver to crack a nut. The nut stays cracked, and the pile driver takes no damage.” Such a mentality is obviously unacceptable in law enforcement and has to be carefully monitored during wartime activities. In today’s litigious society, such a mentality may FEEL good when you operate this way in self-defense, but it will be hard – if not impossible – to defend in court.

Accepting those “levels” of fear and capacity for delivery of violence, I also considered the motivations that might drive such actions. I remember, from eleventh grade ethics class, a list of moral development levels. As listed, moral development ranged from the most basic “do right so I don’t get spanked” to “do right even if it means sacrifice so that someone else may benefit”. Let’s see if I can delineate some of the motivations for committing defensive acts of violence – themselves actual attacks or acts of offense committed in the name of self-defense or the defense of an innocent.

Personal: Using this level of motivation, a person only performs to their own level of defensive action in response to a personal threat. If the threat is to another person, animal, etc., then they take no action. Folks in the “higher” portions of this motivation might actually call 911 to help someone out but will not likely even leave their name or be willing to serve as a witness after the fact. They are still ultimately attempting to avoid conflict.

Punishment: A person may commit an act of violence to punish a person even if that person receiving the punishment didn’t directly offend / attack the person delivering the punishment. Consider an executioner swinging the ax or flipping the lever to deliver the electricity. That individual’s capacity for violence is almost morally disconnected beyond “this is my job and it’s legal.”

Defense of Others: This person is capable of performing acts of violence to their developed capacity in the defense of others who are at a lower-level capacity or who are overwhelmed by circumstances or numbers. When a police officer sees a victim being assaulted and jumps in to stop the assault / arrest the assailant, he (or she) is acting at this level of motivation to commit violence. When a husband comes home and finds his wife being raped, he commits whatever act he’s going to commit to stop that assault using this level of motivation. However, immediately after stopping the assault on his wife, his motivation may change, and he may punish the offender on the spot for such assault.

As I pondered those three motivations, I tried to find a place where “justice” or “retribution” fit in. No, they are not anything alike, but they are both other motivations sometimes voiced for the commitment of violent acts. The husband described above may claim that he was seeking justice, but his acts were motivated by his drive to defend his wife and his need to exact some punishment on her assailant. The more I thought about it the more I became convinced that retribution was also an act of punishment.

But why, you ask, does any of this matter in our daily lives? Let me share with you this thought:

Our founding fathers did not fight tyranny with panic, flight, pure defense or equal offense. They secured the independence of our great country using defense principles based on delivering greater damage than that which they received. Their motivations were surely personal AND in defense of others. After the fight was (mostly) over, they carefully weighed the value of what they had done and documented what they were fighting for. The values and concepts they so thoroughly documented left us with the country we are blessed with today.

The thought I had was, “Can we do any less and call ourselves Americans?”

If you are not willing to stand and fight to defend yourself and your family, then you are a willing victim who most likely won’t fight against tyranny in any form. Once again, we see that the motivations and values we honor and proclaim are not those so often espoused by pacifists and peace-niks. Sacrifice and defense require us to be capable of and willing to commit acts of violence in the name of justice and righteousness.

Do you carry that capability?

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