Most of us spend our lives in the solitude of peaceful work and social environments, the way American life should be. Yet every so often someone decides to take out their frustrations on the world and commit an act of violence that appears random and shocking. Our everyday norm puts us in a complacent mindset, unaware of our surroundings and ignoring the signs and signals of danger nearby. Knowing what to look for and acting on what we see and feel is unusual behavior that could lead to violence is a critical skill to posses in today’s world—for law enforcement and security professionals, as well as citizens. Breaking down associative barriers and old adages such as “mind your own business” and “stick and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me” are deadly wrong! Minding our own business has cost many victims of domestic violence their lives from those neighbors, friends and family who often uttered the words ‘it’s not my business’! Words that are so often perceived as mere words, that don’t equate to actions, yet words have caused more violence than any push or shove has ever created. The way people behave, what they say, and how we perceive their words and actions can mean the difference between a violent act occurring or being prevented. We should not be paranoid about such events; a relaxed state of awareness and good sound decision making is the answer to detecting, resolving and preventing violence.
Threats are often predicted based on behavioral indicators and whether or not a person shows intent, has the capability and opportunity to carry out a violent act. Two of these factors always exist in the United States due to our free and open society; the factors that are always present are capability and opportunity. A willing person who wants to commit a deliberate act of violence or destruction can easily collect the tools he needs to create that violence and destruction, making him capable of carrying out the act. The good news is such acts of violence and destruction is rare. The bad news is, when they do take place, numerous casualties are often the outcome. Columbine, 9-11, Virginia Tech, workplace violence incidents and most recently Fort Hood, TX are a few examples.
It’s not realistic to anticipate and prevent every act of violence but it is possible to reduce the number and severity of these types of events, and make them more difficult to carry out. One of the simplest, yet most powerful ways of doing this is to learn the signs and signals of danger and act on them early with the passion to prevent violent, lethal tragedy.
Most studies on threats and threat assessment make it clear that attacks are the product of organized thinking and behavior, and a means to a goal where motive and target selection are typically directly related. This information is critical because it gives us an opportunity to leverage an advantage in the early stages of adversarial planning if we know what to look for and if we adapt this knowledge to those we suspect may be preparing to act out in a violent manner.
How do we know who is preparing to carry out a violent act?
First, we will not always be able to predict violence. Why? Human nature is the main reason why. We often see the signs, yet we ignore them–not because we don’t want to get involved, but because we choose not to believe that someone we know would carry out a violent act; because we fail to understand the line between the signs and signals, and the violent action. This is understandable human nature because 1) we have been conditioned to mind our own business and 2) we are complacent because these types of events are rare. These realities are all the more reason to act early on the signs and signals that may lead to violence.
Most people who commit an act of violence are stressed or anxious over something gone wrong or perceived to have gone wrong in their lives such as: a failed relationship, a sick loved one, the recent loss of family member or friend, financial problems, a disciplinary action or perceived harassment against them at home, school or work. Their anxiety level rises to a level they can not handle or cope with, and if undetected or dealt with, they act out in a way that can result in violence and destruction to others and themselves.
Most who act out in violence do attempt to get help indirectly by spilling out information. One way in which they attempt to let others know they are troubled is by leaking information subtly to those they know. This leakage could show itself in jokes about some violent act, talking about a dream they had where they committed such an act, or in writings or drawings about violence and destruction. The bottom line is these individuals lack the strength of character or mental clarity to say straight out they have a problem, so they subtly leak out the information in a way that leaves us wondering whether or not they are ok, or ‘what did he/she mean by that.?’ We must listen carefully, and take any announcement of violence seriously.
Those who commit violence show poor coping skills which manifest in words, actions, in ways that most of us may act from time to time such as when we are having a bad day. The fact that we all show these signs at times is a big reason no one reports them. We must remember when discussing conflict and violence that ongoing signs and signals, not a once in a while thing, is the key. They may show a low tolerance for frustration which may show itself in the form of anger management problems. They may be the type of person with an exaggerated need for attention and posses an attitude of superiority. They are often injustice collectors: always the victim and ‘never my fault’ narcissistic type of person. The person with a propensity for violence may dehumanize and show a lack of empathy others. They may seem and act depressed and alienate themselves from others. They may also mask low self-esteem by appearing to be the life of the party and often in a hyper manic state. They may try to manipulate others into their way of thinking or show lack of trust in others.
These signs and signals can show themselves in anyone on occasion. However when this type of behavior takes place on a regular basis or when a once free spirited, connected person becomes withdrawn and isolated – that’s when ‘mind your own business’ and political correctness should be tossed out the window and action needs to be taken. By action I mean getting involved. A conversation addressing the person’s behavior change or violent talk could prevent violent acts from occurring. Not to sound too simplistic or naive here, but an act of compassion can go a long way to steering a potential violent actor to professional help and a healthy way of dealing with his troubles.
If these signs become constant we must let somebody in a position of authority know so that early intervention can take place. Each of us, whether professional or civilian, has the power to prevent a potential violent act from taking place simply by getting involved. Studies have shown from conversation with those who have killed and lived to tell about it that often they were seeking someone to help them, and because no one did, they felt they had no choice but to act out with violence. This is no excuse for their action, but we recognize the facts behind their actions, and the numerous ways we all must act to prevent this kind of violent destruction from happening.
What if the attack is planned by someone for the outside not part of our social network? Often times violence comes from outside our circles and we must be open-minded alert and aware to the signs and signals here as well. One of the key areas signs and signals show themselves in the attackers planning stage. Observation skills are critical here as they are in the above scenarios, yet we may not know this attacker personally leaving our abilities to note unusual or changing behavioral indicators. This means patterns of we must look for come from, the efforts of the attacker in learning what he needs to learn to attack. He needs to know your building where ever it is. So he must do surveillance. Surveillance can take place today in easier ways via the internet, yet most attackers want to see and get a feel the location so they may park and loiter in the area learning all they can about the location and the habits of those working or visiting the location. They may have video equipment, maps, photos, diagrams and sketches of the location. All signs of planning. An attacker may also use what’s known as “boundary probing” to seek more detailed information to the security of the location. Basically the attacker walks into the building and to see how far he can get. Is security alert and aware or is it an open location where he can roam around at will without being questioned. If you notice people you do not know frequenting your area and appear to have no real reason for being there, bring this information to someone’s attention.
These are just a few of the signs and signals and obviously these signs and signals would be attacker attempts to conceal. The key to recognizing the signs is staying alert and aware! Threats can be proved or disproved by using observation skills and trusting our intuition and orientation, making a decision and taking action by sharing information with those who can prove or disprove a threat exists. Don’t feel foolish by telling someone about something that just does not seem right. Our gut feelings are powerful, are they always right? No they are not, but they are often correct when combined with knowledge of the signs and signals of danger very accurate and can prevent violence from unfolding.