Welcome To Reality, America

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, we’re hearing the usual refrain, about how unimaginable it is that someone would do something like this. How could someone possibly murder innocents? Nothing like that has ever happened before! It’s completely outside of all human experience!

The Onion even ran a little supposedly satirical piece about This what world like now

Saying that being completely shocked by an urban bombing is now a thing of the past, officials confirmed that it’s no longer outside the realm of possibility for a mother, son, daughter, or husband to leave home in the morning and not return at night.

The problem with their attempt at humor, and all the shock and surprise at this most recent outrage, is that this isn’t how the world is now. It is how the world has always been. We’ve always lived in a world where sudden death could strike at any time, from accident, natural disaster, or deliberate violence. Just ask the dinosaurs, or the people of Pompeii, or the woman who had her young child ripped from her arms by a tornado, or any of the people in any of the countries around the world who have lived with the threat of violence for years or generations. On the same day as the Boston bombing 25 people were killed by a bomb in a cafe in Baghdad. Americans have been insulated from this fact of reality, because we’ve been fortunate over the last century in natural disasters, and we simply don’t care how many people get blown up in far-away countries, but reality it is.

Our splendid isolation is cracking, though. The modern, global, economy is so interconnected, and our own society so polarized and fragmented, that we are no longer out of violence’s reach. Much like the Romans as their empire declined and the legions could no longer entirely keep the barbarians out, forcing them to build walls around cities that hadn’t been threatened in two centuries, we need to realize that we live in the same world as everyone else, and are subject to the same threats. We aren’t that special.

We can no longer tell ourselves that something is ‘unthinkable’ when it has happened several times before. That is no longer innocence; it is delusional.

Not only is this delusion embarrassing, but it also costs lives. It makes us a softer, easier target. Look at the Boston bombing. The bombers left stuffed-full backpacks in the middle of a crowd and walked away. Try that in some city in, say, Israel and you won’t make it five steps away before being tackled or shot. (That’s part of why terrorists started using suicide bombers.) But in the United States, most people are completely unaware that there is any possibility of bad people wanting to hurt them. This disbelief makes the terrorist’s job ludicrously easy.

Here’s a tip: If you are at a major public event and someone walks up next to you, sets a backpack or suitcase down on the ground, and walks away, that bag is not filled with cupcakes and rainbows. Get out of there and alert the authorities immediately, in that order.

I’m not encouraging paranoia, or living in fear. Quite the opposite; I’ve often said that the best way to fight terror is to simply not be terrorized. In order to not be terrorized, though, you must be mentally and emotionally prepared.

The world is as it has always been, and people are pretty much as they have always been. Neither is likely to change in the near future, so it is up to us to learn how to live in the world we have. That doesn’t mean being fatalistic or accepting of random violence–we can and should do our best to prevent such acts, and a tragedy is still a tragedy–but it is time to stop denying that such things can happen. Preventing, surviving, and living with the aftermath of such events requires it.

Many years ago, Col. Cooper invented the Cooper Color Code, to define a person’s state of mental preparedness to react to violence. (In his system, he’s talking about reacting with violence, but for our purpose that doesn’t have to be the case. Fleeing the scene can be a perfectly valid response.) The four stages range from completely unprepared to ‘lethal mode.’ Most Americans are in Condition White most of, if not all of, the time.

White: Unaware and unprepared. If attacked in Condition White, the only thing that may save you is the inadequacy or ineptitude of your attacker. When confronted by something nasty, your reaction will probably be “Oh my God! This can’t be happening to me.”

How often have we heard some survivor of a violent event say that their first thought was, “This can’t be happening!” That state of denial is the very definition of Condition White. It is what leaves people in a state of shock when they are forced into Condition Red: Violent things are happening.

Here is a summary of the rest of Cooper’s color codes:

Yellow: Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. Your mindset is that “today could be the day I may have to defend myself”. You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary.
Orange: Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert.
Red: Condition Red is fight.

I think that we would be much safer, and healthier, if more Americans spent more time in Condition Yellow instead of White. Not paranoid, not constantly on edge, but simply aware that something bad might someday happen, and that they may be called on to act.

This is really not that much of a mental leap. Most adult Americans spend a good part of their day in Condition Yellow already, in a different context; when driving. Consider:

When you are driving, if you are at all good at it (and we have too many people who aren’t, but that’s another topic), you spend your time behind the wheel in Condition Yellow. Relaxed, but observant, aware of your own vehicle, road conditions, and the cars around you. When another car drifts too close, you notice and escalate to Condition Orange. A possible danger has caught your attention and you respond, probably by slowing down or changing lanes, but at least watching that car more closely. When the car lurches into your lane, you’re ready, in Condition Red now, taking emergency action. You brake or swerve out of the way.

Compare that to someone driving in Condition White, oblivious to the cars around them. They become aware of the threat only when the other car enters their lane, and by then it is probably too late for them to take evasive action. Crash.

On the road of life, we are a nation of bad drivers, constantly surprised and traumatized by completely predictable events. It’s time to grow up and pay attention to the world around us.

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