What if you have to intervene? What are your options? by Stanley Pranin

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“Is your only option to ‘attack the attacker’?”

Yesterday’s blog on the consequences of waiting to respond to an attack struck a chord with readers.

To further explore this topic, l would like to extend the discussion by positing the following scenario. You come across a dangerous situation that you perceive requires you to intervene to help someone, perhaps a loved one, or even a stranger. You personally are not being attacked. Your immediate judgement is that someone will die or be severely injured if you do not act.

How does your dojo training prepare you to deal with such a situation? Has your teacher ever discussed the matter? Have you ever given the topic any serious thought?

I have been faced with such a situation and describe what happened here.

Many will react to this line of questioning by adopting the assumption that they have to “attack the attacker” in order to save someone in danger. Is this really our only option?

Our readers represent a huge pool of life experience. I would like to tap your collective knowledge to engage in an intelligent dialog on this important topic, something we may quite possibly have to face during our lifetimes.



  1. Bob Cornman interrupted a purse snatch. He recovered the purse. The snatcher attacked him with it. Classic shomen, with an equally classic result. But he was attacked by the original snatcher’s 4 man backup team. He dealt with it, but ended up losing the purse as no bystander would touch it.

    On one occasion I interrupted a mugging, a big white guy on a little Chinese guy. As I jogged across the street toward the scene I shouted, “That’s enough!” The mugger looked over his shoulder, saw me approaching and fled. If he’d had backup, the shout might have smoked them out.

  2. Since becoming an adult, I have been attacked several times, and held at gunpoint twice. I’ve been fortunate to have left those situations without having to fully engage. I think that being ready and assertive, and maintaining calm was the big key.

    The physical attacks were all resolved by not being where the punch was supposed to land, and in one case where several were coming.

    I do count myself lucky.

    Staying aware of your surroundings and avoiding risky situations is the best initial strategy, but there are some cases where violence cannot be avoided. I could see making the first move, at least drawing an attack out in those cases.

  3. dejan dj. says:

    There is no doubt sometimes we do have to attack an attacker. Or simply let him beat up his/her victim. Of course, it is not necessary to hurt him/her. Perhaps it would be enough to apply an armlock after softening up with a couple of unharmful yet painful strikes/kicks.

  4. Truthfully, the topic of “self defense” does not come up quite often in a dojo environment, but for us it comes up during discussions outside of class and brings up a lot of controversy at times.

    Budo does not actually translate to self defense. Albeit “The Way” or Martial Arts/Techniques, the principles behind it is warfare, which cannot be denied. Though one would just go ahead and say “Bu” in “Budo” means to “stop the spear” in a philosophical sense, one will still needs to be really skillfull in the spear in order to be able to stop it.

    In the concept of warfare, at least in the old times or the eastern mindset, you are actually fighting for something greater than you are, whatever it is: god, country, your feudal lord, the greater good, etc. These values becomes embedded in the mindset of warriors albeit in the form of martial virtues or otherwise. In the battlefield there is no longer a grey line, it is either kill or be killed. Any decision about which side you’re on or whatever motivation you have to go into battle was made prior to this, if not, you’ll probably be the first one to get cut down. There can’t be any doubt.

    Now we all pretty much live in a relatively comfortable more modernized civilized settings. There are laws, edicts, and norms that govern each of our ways of life. We are not in the battlefield, so whatever knowledge of the art or The Way must be able to adapt to this type of living. However, some aspects remain, the virtues or the code that you live by.

    In the topic of intervention, for me, I actually split the rules of engagement and some of this may disregard the topic of “self defense” law, because in some cases you may be willing to pay the price because of your ideals (virtues/codes)

    The below is assumed when the threat is a direct physical attack, a violent threat where the subject is in a position of life threatening disadvantage (disparity of force), not fighting or a “monkey dance” type of situation.

    When it comes to my family / loved ones, or close friends that is as close family, then it is a no brainer for me. I will intervene directly, as I would perceive any delay could be fatal. Where I’m from, there is no such thing as an effective 911 call like in the US or 999 like UK or AU. I probably won’t think of any laws or consequences by now because I have made up my mind. And I probably won’t be thinking of any strategy or techniques, as it would be too late. I will need to act with everything I have, even a violent attack (there’s no way of sugar coating this).

    If I’m familiar with the person but not too close. I may try to think a little, even to a point to who actually initiated the physical confrontation. But as life is threatened I may still have a limited intervention to a point where the person could escape from harm’s way, and then run away and try to get to the nearest police station.

    If it’s a total stranger, I would be less likely to intervene, and try to find the nearest police station. Because you don’t know how the whole thing started, and you could get dragged into a whole lot of mess, e.g.: gang related fights, you could be taken as siding with one of the gangs, or get lynched mob in the process. My skill level is not that of the movies where I could fight off a mob of people.

    The risk must be weighted before hand, for me. I would be willing to give me life for a certain group of people, but may not necessarily others whom I don’t know. Selfish, but sometimes that’s the way it is. I’m no hero and may not uphold those idealistic virtues that we see in martial arts movies. I’m just being honest and realistic here.

    Any engagement in a battle or a fight could end up in death or at least injury, no matter what skill you have. The decision to engage means you have at least accepted that fact. One cannot go into battle being afraid of getting punched in the face.

    The decision to engage or not to engage must be engrained before any of these incident happen. Some is a no brainer and just engage, but others you may want to consider the implications/risks and even consider whatever law you might know. These then become the code that you live by and it may become more pragmatic than it is idealistic. If you’re just thinking about it when it’s all happening, it may probably be too late.

    As for techniques and all that… well.. we all have our theories… but when the day comes, all those theories will be tested…

  5. tom collings says:

    Thank you, Stan, for presenting this important issue for discussion. As my previous blogs have made clear I am a big proponent of initiating engagement – not waiting and reacting – when confronted with potential violence. But I also concur with the recent post pointing out that there are a wide variety of creative options possible for taking the initiative, physical contact being only one and often not the best.

    I have been fortunate to see some amazingly creative and skillful options used during my years working on psych wards and in law enforcement – I am actually completing a book which chronicles many of these memorable encounters.

    One correction: A common misconception was expressed in a prior comment that it is unlawful to use violence before you are attacked: NY State Penal law – and that of most jurisdictions allows the use of force when you reasonably believe you or another person is in “imminent danger” of assault. The law further allows a police officer – or citizen – to use deadly physical force – if they reasonably believe deadly force (a weapon/very large male/ multiple attackers) is “about to be used” against them or another person. When the threat no longer exists (attacker immobilized or retreats) all force must cease. Being clear about the laws pertaining to lawful use of force is important because it can enhance decisive action and avoid hesitation.

    • Bill Hely says:

      In Australia most states (if not all) have enacted Good Samaritan laws which are intended to provide extra protection for persons going to, or acting in the interests of, aid of others. I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know the details, but I don’t think there has ever been a case to test these laws.

  6. Keith E. McInnis says:

    You prompt us to answer the questions “are we really learning budo & are we living it?”

    Your last 2 questions first: “Has your teacher ever discussed the matter?” “Have you ever given the topic any serious thought? ”
    In my dojo the question ‘will it work on the streets’ is asked nearly every class. We are regularly challenged with real life stories and asked “what would you do?” and “is your reaction an ‘Aiki’ response?”

    “How does your dojo training prepare you to deal with such a situation?”

    In our dojo techniques are taught which emphasize taking balance, ‘twisting’ the attacker, utilizing atemi to ‘capture the mind’ (elicit a neurologically determined reaction), finishing the encounter quickly and when appropriate escaping to get help. Through confident, competent, strong techniques we minimize the risk of injury to ourselves and the attacker. By instilling confidence through consistent realistic practice we spread a true budo message of peace.

    Confidence is required in order to intervene effectively. One must be competent to have confidence.
    We increase peace in the world by interrupting violence. We can only interrupt violence when we are confident and competent.

    Our dojo will be (again) featured for the national Day of Unity re. bullying and in our community we are also focusing on domestic violence as the two are closely linked. Our dojo offers free self-defense classes every week to the community (kids/teens/adults). The catch is… they are free. This is how we are spreading the Aikido message through direct community interactions. In this way we are advancing the principles of O’Sensei.

    We emphasize that a confident, aware bearing and demeanor not only prevents attacks it also projects a sense of safety into the world and ideally are all that is required.

    Bullies, abusers, criminals, predators, etc. are cowards and almost all are poorly trained. Like most animals in the wild they seek the easy, weak targets and shy away from a challenge. In most instances, insinuating ourselves into an in-progress situation with merely our posture, awareness and confidence is enough to interrupt the predator. If not, we are trained to help.

    Personally I believe that as an Aikidoka I have been entrusted with a powerful tool of peace directly from OSensei. That trust includes taking direct action to interrupt violence. That trust includes ensuring my competence and the competence of my fellow aikidoka.

  7. Mohamed Ansari says:

    This is and should only be the reason one should study a “martial art” and not a “martial sport.” All too often, many will think because of years of training and tournament activity they will be ready to handle the “Prison Yard” attacker built like Mike Tyson, but they discover an attack takes place 1.5′ or closer often with a weapon. If your art doesn’t have atemi jutsu, small circle movement, tai sabaki, joint locks, breaks and takedowns you are fooling yourself that what you are studying will work against a serious life threating attack.

    Think of yourself at the ATM machine, you turn with money in your hand and there he is, knife or pipe coming at you, what will and can you do? You’ve trained for this moment (a least you thought so, or your Sensei told you so) and now it’s “show time”/”hot dog time”, he’s going to take your cherry. Train every day (7 days), because the criminal trains in prison daily and once on the outside he’s looking for prey. Don’t be his lunch! TRAIN, STRIKE (3-4) to vital areas, kick low kicks, elbow strikes, head butt (side of the head) to chest area or nose. You have to earn the lock and throw, if he pushes/strikes you pull, if he pulls (upper body/lower body) you push. And last but not least, unbalance (Kazushi) your attacker(s) as soon as you come into contact with him/them, with atemi, sabaki,etc.

    Mohamed Ansari, 5th dan, Koshin Ichi Ryu Taijutsu

  8. Dirk Schilstra says:

    In my work, I encountered many violent situations. First thing you have to do, in my opinion, is to survey the situation. Is the attacker big/strong, armed, is it one or more?

    Stop! think! act!

    Because I am not the one under attack, I have the opportunity to think before acting. If possible, let someone call the emergency number, if possible act not alone.

    An attacker is focused on the victim, if the situation is not yet life-threatening, draw his attention. Make contact, so he/she is aware of the situation around him, of your presence.

    Sometimes the attacker has to re-set his brain, ask a stupid question for example what he had for breakfast.

    When you have his/her attention, let him/her explain the situation, use aikido in your conversation!

    If the situation is already violent, make the attacker spin. His focus is gone, try to keep the victim out of his site so he will not be triggered.

    Always explain what you saw and why you reacted how you did. Be respectful to the attacker! Do not pick sides, you don’t know the history! !!!

    I hope my vision is helpful,

    Greetings from the Netherlands

  9. Charles Humphrey says:

    Gotta add my own little story that was a lesson in checking your assumptions – particularly in a foreign country. I was practicing late at night on my university campus in Beijing. I hadn’t been there so long. I heard some shouting and looked to see a man and woman in their 30s of roughly equal size locked into a standing grapple. They were a few hundred yards away. I just watched to get a sense of the situation and whether it warranted intervention. Apparently no one else thought it did (which is typical of mainland Chinese society) and many folks walked by pretending not to notice.

    I watched and when the man unbalanced the woman, taking her to the ground and then proceeded to kick her in the back I ran at them. My first thought was “I’m gonna knock that f***er’s block off for that!” but as I approached and as I was only one perceived misconduct away from deportation at any moment, and that any intervention on my part would be identified as a severe transgression (universal humanist principles don’t apply in the PRC… foreigners are ALWAYS wrong,) I slowed down and thought better to take a more diplomatic tack. I got quite close and held up my hands, palms out and slowly approached the man using the little Chinese I had at that time saying calmly “Slow-slow, friend, slow-slow. Friend, slow-slow, slow-slow friend.” figuring he might get the point.

    At first he didn’t notice me he was so enraged at the woman but then he looked at me in surprise and confusion probably thinking “where did this white dude come from and what the hell is he talking about?” He looked like he might be so shocked by my intervention that he might forget his anger when suddenly, the woman took advantage of his distraction to start laying into him with her fists screaming bloody rage at him. I took a step back and thought to myself “Ah, I see…this is not what I assumed it to be…I’m in over my head… Okay, let them duke it out I guess…” and walked away to keep practicing, figuring that if I saw one of them deliver potentially serious blows I would reintervene. It never came to that. They took turns beating each other in non-dangerous ways, slapping, hair-pulling kicking back and buttocks and screaming at each other. I learned a good lesson to check my assumptions about a situation some times and take a moment to gauge the situation before taking action.

  10. I see many articulate and well thought out responses. My concern revolves around what you as well as many qualified Aikidoists have pointed out in this publication. The way Aikido is practiced today could easily give someone a false sense of confidence . ” I have responded to a tsuki attack from a tanto hundreds of times in the dojo” The choreographed protocols of training could easily have a person thinking they could perform similar techniques on a violent attacker who does not know he/she is not to resist and is expected to fall down at the mutually agreed upon time.

    This could easily get a person seriously hurt or killed. The decades old debate of does Aikido really work will continue indefinitely . (I rarely hear it regarding other Martial Arts.) The bigger issue is that a false sense of confidence can be a very dangerous thing when the stakes are high.

    • Richard says:

      Well said!! Some of these aikido people think that everybody is like at the dojo, where the uke is supposed to give all the time.
      When you get on a real situation the aikidoka most times have a false sense of security, and that’s is when they get hurt, that is why I an against aikido, they need to incorporate some attacks to make your opponent to give you the space and momentum to use aikido to their advantage. Don’t get me wrong, Aikido is a good art, and it belongs in the dojo, that is why Aikido is not a competitive art, like other martial arts.

  11. Recently there was a couple in Las Vegas who murdered some police officers. They entered a store. The guy was brandishing a gun and shouting. An armed citizen tried to stop him. The guy’s wife was his backup and shot the Good Samaritan. The couple was later killed by police snipers. I have no problem with armed intervention if you’re armed but the good guys don’t always win. Obviously if the bad guys are armed and you’re not, losing is the most likely option.

    There are two mnemonics that apply here.

    “OCCOKA, a military acronym for looking at critical points in operational areas and standing for

    key terrain features,
    and avenues of approach.” – Dane Harden

    OODA – observe, orient, decide, act – John Boyd

    The first is preparatory. When the show starts, the combatant who can work through the OODA cycle fastest has an advantage. That’s where technical training counts.

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