The shooting this morning near the Empire State Building reminds me of a recent conversation that I had with a former San Diego police officer about watching a fight unfold right in front of you. Many people have had the experience at some point in their lives, and if you ask people about it, they can tell you all about what happened before the fight broke out. They talk about the aggressive person getting into the face of the person they are about to fight. They talk about the aggressive person taking off his shirt or hat before the fight begins. They bring up the fact that they watched the aggressive person approaching or running at the person he was about to strike. And they bring up every other pre-fight action you could image.
Rarely do they ever stop the fight from happening. Why not? The common answer is usually because they weren’t the one about to get punched. There was no risk to them, so why intervene? Intervening could be dangerous. Right?
This morning’s shooting was a Workplace Violence related attack where the shooter’s former boss got killed in the assault. But besides that person, 9 additional people were wounded. These 9 people were not the target of the attack; they were bystanders who became collateral damage. If you were to take the gun out of the equation, they wouldn’t have had any stake in the encounter or had any incentive to stop it from happening.
Regardless of whether you are the intended target or not, with active shooter scenarios, the stakes go up immensely. This isn’t a bar fight where you are safe ten feet away and aren’t in jeopardy of getting punched – bullets travel. Did anyone see the 53-year-old man approaching the office before the event occurred and no something was going to happen? I wasn’t there and I don’t want to speculate on that, but we can still pull some lessons from the event to help stop it from happening in the future.
Look at what usually precedes a fight or a shooting; the attacker has to close the distance between himself and his target. We refer to them as Proxemic Pulls, when you approach the object of your attention and close the distance that separates you. Normally this dynamic is positive and that should always be the baseline for a Proxemic Pull. We would expect to see comfortable cues, happy expressions, and generally open gestures and postures. While there may be subtle elements of the other clusters, they probably wouldn’t be enough to raise your suspicions.
But when someone approaches you with anything other than positive intentions, that Proxemic Pull immediately becomes an anomaly. The person is now approaching you with a possible goal to do some form of harm.
How do you identify that ahead of time? One way is to look for excessive cues from the Dominance, Uncomfortable, and Interested clusters. Is the person’s body language showing what his intentions are with Dominance cues above the baseline? Maybe the person’s behavior betrayed his true purpose by acting aggressively, posturing to making him appear larger, raising his voice, approaching faster than expected or doing anything else to intimidate the focus of their attention. Intense anger or rage might cause a person to act this way before the fight or shooting begins.
A different person who is less fueled by emotion could be showing Uncomfortable cues above the baseline as well if they are worried about getting caught before they make it to their target. This could be conveyed through excessive pacifying behavior as they try to calm themselves down before they get to the point of the attack. You might see this in ways that many people would characterize as “shifty,” “nervous” or “anxious” behavior.
Finally, look for Interested cues well above the baseline. We often refer to this as mission focus, where a person loses awareness of everything going on around them as they lock on to their target. This could also be a person that is approaching someone too quickly, clearly demonstrating their intense desire to close the distance between them.
Again, I don’t know what cues the attacker gave off this morning and can’t say what type of behavior he was showing. As we seek to remove the fear of attack in our lives, beginning to analyze the people approaching us can help provide us with an early warning if they have anything other than positive intentions. Proxemic Pulls should be something enjoyable for everyone, but if you believe that a person approaching you or someone else is anything other than that, don’t just sit back. With firearms, the stakes go up for everyone in the vicinity; the best chance for your survival may be to look out for those around you as well.