School Shootings And Islamic Terrorism

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 24th Aug)

As part of the seminars Dave Ashworth conducted on Active Shooters he showed some CCTV footage of the Columbine Shootings, in which you could hear both the 911 call, and the shooters talking. Although grainy the footage was both graphic and disturbing. It is sometimes difficult to makes sense of what motivates individuals to engage in such actions, and how they can behave in such a callous manner disregarding an individual’s plea for life and showing utter contempt for a person’s suffering etc. After watching such footage we can come away with a mix of emotions, including depression, anger and anxiety etc. This blog article is aimed at explaining why individuals, without excusing them, engage and are driven to taking life in this manner.

Firstly it is worth noting that the majority of school shootings take place in rural rather than urban settings. Whilst at first glance this may seem incidental, it speaks volumes about the environments in which many school shooters grow up. The communities they live in tend to be close knit, with everyone knowing and being involved in everybody else’s business. In such situations, those who find themselves on the “outside”, often feel extremely isolated and misunderstood, as well as feeling judged by the majority who are part of the community. The High School, and often the sports team become the focal point, around which the community centers itself. For a teenager seeking to develop their own identity, this can be an extremely claustrophobic and judgmental environment to grow up in. As individuals find themselves without a place in society, they turn their backs on society’s conventions and rules, and try other places in which to find themselves; exhausted they may turn back and punish the communities that have excluded them.

This is no different to the way that many western Islamic extremists become radicalized. Many people living in the west don’t understand why somebody growing up in a country, could end up hating it so much to the point where they would consider going off to join a terrorist organization such as ISIS. However, if you are a Muslim teenager growing up in Boston, and all you hear on the news and in the media is anti-Islamic rhetoric, you are soon going to feel isolated and judged. You are going to try and find/work out if you have a place in a society that seemingly disrespects you. You might conclude from both social and conventional media, that there actually isn’t a place for you as an American Muslim, which may in turn make you look outwards to an organization or group that can explain to you your feelings of anger and frustration, give you a place where you do fit in (even if it is just virtual) and tell you how you should act and behave.

The Columbine shooters didn’t fit into any of the social groups in their High School – they weren’t even judged to be suitable to be part of the Goth scene at their school i.e. even the “outcasts” had rejected them; they simply didn’t have a “place” to belong. They were not in a large city where they could have perhaps found other people who would accept them, but rather they were stuck in a society where everybody knew them, and had known them since they were kids, and which wasn’t able to acknowledge them as being part of that society. This is the same situation that many American Muslim teenagers find themselves in, feeling different, judged and not knowing how to fit in. Both groups feel disempowered, disrespected and confused. Such individuals are ripe picking for groups and organizations who can give them direction and the ability to punish those groups who have shunned them. If ISIS had existed at the time of Columbine, there is nothing to say that the shooters would not have been inspired to “join” by the violent imagery, and the message of retribution and punishment, that is promoted by this group. The Columbine shooters found their guidance from video games, music, and their circle of friends.

People engage in acts of violence because they feel justified, and because they see no alternatives. In any violent act there are always motives fueled by anger and the need for power and control. The Columbine Shooters were not simply punishing their school by their actions but the entire society in which they had grown up in e.g. everybody who had called them or thought of them as weird, and had not given them a place to express themselves in their community. They realized that they would never fit in, and looked for alternative ways in which to express themselves; finding none they turned to violence, something they felt justified to engage in. Anyone who watches the footage can see/feel their anger and their rage. It may be hard to accept that such anger can stem from an inability to find a place in society, however if we are to effectively prevent teenage Muslims from being radicalized we need to recognize the effects that judgment and isolation can have. In those long, few minutes, the Columbine shooters had the power and control that had always been denied to them.

For me one of the most depressing parts of the CCTV footage, is hearing them talk calmly about committing suicide i.e. whether they should pull the trigger on three, or after three. These were individuals who had given up on life completely, not just everybody else’s but theirs as well. They had given up on life long before they planned the shootings. When such a thing occurs society has a time bomb on their hands; violence towards themselves and/or others is inevitable. The Columbine community didn’t consciously create a situation where these teenagers didn’t have a place to fit in. It didn’t deliberately isolate and judge them, and it never warranted the retribution it received. It is worth pointing out that many other kids in similar situations don’t turn to violence however we should recognize that such environments can cause young minds to feel alienated and angry, and that such feelings can lead to violence.         

The Columbine shooters may appear to have nothing in common with the US teenagers who are radicalized by extremists, however if we look at the emotions and feelings of both sets, they are very, very similar. There are people who will punish the societies that don’t acknowledge or give them a position to exist in, and if we are to avoid school shootings and other acts of terror, we must look at ways of accommodating such individuals, so that they have both a sense of belonging and commitment to their society rather than feeling isolated and angry towards it.

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Campus Safety

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 23rd Aug)

We live in a “tips and tricks” society, and this especially true in the media’s approach to personal safety and self-defense; magazines, newspapers and TV media, will often finish a story about an assault, with four or five safety tips, that the listener/viewer is lead to believe will keep them safe, if adopted. The two girls who were recently assaulted in South Boston believed that walking together as a pair, meant that they were safe from being attacked – this may be the case when trying to avoid being targeted by the lone sexual predator, who is looking for a single victim, however a pair of muggers may consider two people a better proposition, as there are two wallets/purses to take, rather than one. Something that is a deterrent to one violent criminal, may not be a deterrent to others. Tips and tricks may work or be applicable in one scenario, but have the opposite effect in others.

At this time of year we receive a lot of requests for private lessons from parents who want us to do a couple of hours self-defense training with their daughter who is about to go off to college/university. Although teenagers are growing up faster these days, their attitudes are often more childlike than they were when I was there age; this generation is relying far more on their parents to do things for them, and take responsibility for them than was the case when I was a teenager. This is not to say I or my peers wouldn’t have benefited from personal safety training before we went off to college, as we certainly would have, but rather that today’s generation has become so reliant on their parents, that they have rarely had to think about or consider the consequences of their actions and behaviors from a personal safety perspective. When this is coupled with a parent’s belief – taken from the way the media presents this subject - that personal safety and self-defense training is really just a collection of tips and tricks that can be communicated in a few hours, everybody’s expectations of what they can achieve in that short timeframe, starts to become highly unrealistic.

I understand that when parents have to consider a myriad of logistics that go into setting their child up on campus, personal safety can easily get forgotten, however when a woman is more likely to be sexually assaulted if she attends college/university than if she doesn’t, and there is an extremely high dropout rate of those who have been victimized (or who suffer lower grades as a consequence), this really shouldn’t be the case, even if looked at from a purely educational perspective. When the psychological and emotional trauma to the individual is considered, personal safety should perhaps be the first and number one concern of any parent as they help their daughter a particular college/university – the Clery Act requires Campus Police to make public their crime statistics. It is easy to believe that the statistics apply to others, and not to ourselves or people we know, however this is just a form of denial.

Personal safety is a mindset, not a collection of tips and tricks, and this mindset cannot be developed overnight. Any “tips and tricks” that are conveyed in this article, should not be seen as something in and of themselves, but as pointers that demonstrate how criminals, assailants and predatory individuals think, behave, and operate. If you feel that after reading some of these pointers you have ticked a box, and have covered some personal safety basis, you have fallen foul of the media’s approach to personal safety, and are a long way from developing an appropriate mindset; one which naturally considers and takes into account the safety consequences of your actions and behaviors. It may be that you don’t want to have to think in this way, or that you believe it’s not necessary to have this particular mindset. If this is the case, you are simply relying on being on the right side of the statistics; everything works until it doesn’t.

Many kids who go off to college for the first time, still act and behave as if they are living at home, where campus is just a larger extension of the house they live in, with fewer restrictions, and a greater sense of freedom. They naturally think everyone is like them, and because they wouldn’t do harmful things to others, others won’t do harmful things to them. Some of the most stolen items on campus are not laptops and electronic devices, but textbooks. Textbooks are unlikely to be stolen by criminals from off-campus, and much more likely to be stolen by fellow students. People steal/take what they believe is valuable, and to a student on a fixed and/or low income, textbooks are valuable. Some books required as course reading can range between $100 and $200 – you can buy electronic devices such as tablets and even laptops for less – however books are items we don’t traditionally consider as valuable i.e. when did you last hear of a burglar breaking into a house and foregoing the widescreen TV, in order to empty the bookshelves? A student may understand that they shouldn’t leave their laptop unattended in a public area, such as a common room or library, whilst not thinking that an unattended textbook is actually coveted/valued more. Who steals textbooks? Not career criminals, but fellow students. Not everybody has the same values or works to the same moral code as we do, even if we share the same environment and situation.

Personal safety on campus can be a hassle. Who wants to have to lock their dorm room door, and take their key, when they go and take a shower? It’s easier and more convenient to simply leave the door propped open. The first time this is done, there may be a sense of apprehension and doubt, as to whether this is a good idea, but by the end of term it’s become a habit with no consequence. That is until the day, when somebody entering the hall of residence, holds a door open for a stranger who now has free run of the building. This time there is a consequence, as that stranger is patrolling the corridors looking for unlocked or open doors. Not only do you lose your laptop, but perhaps because you didn’t back your work up to the cloud or an external device, that term’s work, and the papers you have due in, in the following weeks.

Going to college should be an exciting time, which will end with an academic qualification and some important life experiences. By not thinking about personal safety, and trusting that the statistics apply to others, the outcome may be very different. Personal safety is a mindset, not simply a collection of top tips. If you have concluded that not leaving textbooks unattended, and keeping doors locked is the be all and end all to security on campus, and the point of this article, then at least you have two new “tips” to adopt. However, the risks that young women attending university face, extend far beyond this. Personal safety is a mindset, and so by way of introduction to this mindset, we have created a free six module personal safety course ( for women going to college, which can be accessed by clicking here.  

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How Simple Is Simple?

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 16th Aug)

Dealing with violence is easy. I’ve been told that a lot in my life, especially recently. The first time I was told it was when I was about 8 and being bullied by a kid at my school; a friend informed me that all I had to do was punch the bully in the stomach, and when he bent over knee him in the face. Great advice from someone who had never had to face a kid twice his size before; the advice was well meant, sincere, and I’m sure he believed it was just a simple matter of punching the kid in the stomach, however there were a lot of things that he hadn’t considered, such as, what the bully would be doing (would he give me the opportunity to punch him?), the bullies friends, the crippling fear I always felt etc. It is easy to break solutions down to an, “all you have to do…” mentality, however there are a few issues that have to be dealt with first before this approach becomes effective. Unfortunately most of the people who so readily explain violence in these simplistic terms have never actually dealt with a real-life situation.

One simple solution to violence I hear a lot when people are talking about those who have been the subject of violent assaults is, “this wouldn’t have happened if they’d had a gun.” There are even individuals who believe that just because they carry, that in and of itself makes them safe; unfortunately it doesn’t. Firstly, you may still be targeted for a crime, or an assault, because your assailant is unaware that you are carrying, and secondly an experienced criminal will create a situation, where it is unlikely that you have the time and space to draw. If they already have their weapon pulled and pointed, you are only going to escalate the situation if you try and draw; if they have their finger on the trigger, and you go for your weapon, unless you are highly trained, you are probably going to get shot. To deal with such a situation successfully, you need the appropriate threat recognition skills, and the ability to understand the situation e.g. if your situational awareness fails to pick up your primary assailant’s accomplice, you may well successfully deal with the person you are facing, and end up harmed by the person you didn’t see. Unfortunately range time doesn’t prepare you for any of this, as your gun is already out, and you are always facing a visible target.

Many people have a belief in the simplicity and effectiveness of techniques e.g. all you have to do is grab the gun, deliver a few punches and disarm. I believe techniques should be simple, however it is not their simplicity which makes them work in real life scenarios, it is the skills and attributes of the person performing them, and real life is very different from the controlled environment of the studio or dojo, where the consequences of poor execution are zero. It is easy to get into a habit of thinking that because a technique is simple, the overall solution to the problem the technique is meant to be solving is simple. If a person points a gun at you, the technique is only one part of the solution to the situation you face e.g. what if when you grab the gun your attacker’s gun they try and retain in, what if they are highly adrenalized or drugged up and your strikes don’t bother them, what if due to your sweaty palms you don’t get a good grip on the gun, what if your attacker’s reaction time is faster than yours, what do you do once you disarm? Whilst we shouldn’t create so many what if’s that we become indecisive and are frozen to the spot (something I did for a long time when being bullied), we should understand that we are in a situation where there are many factors at play, and which need to be considered as part of the solution. Those whose experience is limited to the training room, and Youtube, tend to get tunnel focused on the technique and lose sight of the situation, and the problem (which may be better dealt with using a non-physical solution).

Many training methods have one goal, which is to get the student competent at performing techniques as perfectly as possible, and lose sight of what the technique is therefore i.e. to keep the student safe. To this end any other solution that meets this criteria, is a techniques equal, however rarely do these alternative solutions get trained, and because of this, the individual’s solutions to situations become technique-centric e.g. everything becomes about performing a gun disarm, rather than about walking away without getting shot. This approach is flawed, potentially dangerous/lethal, and is based on ego rather than on survival. It is also one that may be appropriate in one setting (military) but not so appropriate or effective in others (civilian/social settings). Many people see military and special forces training as that which represents the highest level, however the scenarios that these operatives are training for are very different than the ones a civilian is training for or likely to expect. In a SF scenario, not disarming probably means you will get shot, in a civilian scenario, involving a mugger demanding your wallet, acquiescing to their demand and not attempting to disarm, will probably mean you won’t get shot. Are methods and approach to dealing with situations should be appropriate for the scenarios we are likely to face and physical techniques should not be the only solutions we train.

Our training can also give us the idea that the types of attacks we are likely to face are simple, and the solutions simple. I am still amazed that in the Krav Maga community, the emphasis that is put on learning to deal with two handed chokes to the throat – yes these are easy attacks to deal with, but nobody makes these attacks, certainly not that I or many other instructors I train with, have seen. If instructors create the impression that you are most likely to be attacked by someone utilizing a two-handed throat choke, students will soon get the impression that, “all you need to do when being attacked…” Violence is fast-paced, dynamic and scary, that message needs to be conveyed, and teaching attacks that are easy to deal with, and implying that this is what violence looks like is a false message.

We need to understand all the factors at play in a violent situation, the realistic “what ifs”, and address them so that we can get down to making the solutions we need to put in place, both physical and non-physical, as simple as, “punch him in the stomach then knee him in the face.”   

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Weather, Heat & Violent Crimes

(Gershon Ben Keren - Fri 14th Aug)

On Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, there were four shootings in the Boston area, that left five people dead. That makes up roughly a third of all Boston murders involving firearms, so far this year. It isn’t yet understood if these murders, which happened in three different locations, are related or not, however it does signify a spike in homicides. One of the factors that may be at play is the weather. It is generally accepted, and the crime statistics bear this out; that violent crimes increase in the spring and the summer time, and that temperature can play a part, both by creating social situations which are conducive to crime, as well as by altering individual’s physiological and psychological states. In this blog article, I want to look at how the weather, and temperature in particular, play a part in violent crime, including homicides.

Good weather creates more opportunities for crime. When it is hot and the weather is good, people spend more time outdoors, which in turn creates more situations that are conducive to crime. When you couple this with the fact that schools, and universities, are closed over the summer, there is an additional population/demographic that is out in public – and these individuals may find that they have a lot of time on their hands to fill, and also a lot of time that they will be spending in close proximity to other individuals, meaning a likely increase in the number of disputes and arguments - between both members of the group, and other groups they interact with. This increase in the number of people out and about means there are both more potential aggressors, and also more potential victims. This is also true for more low-level crimes such as muggings e.g. there are more people to rob on a sunny day than a rainy one.

In the summer, people also tend to stay up later, and drink more, and the relationship between alcohol and violence is a strong one. When you couple over-consumption of alcohol, with the discomfort caused by heat, you have a dangerous cocktail that causes people to be overly aggressive towards each other. There have been many studies that demonstrate how being overly hot causes people to become more aggressive e.g. it has been found that drivers whose cars don’t have air-conditioning, are more likely to become aggressive and use their horn, when the temperature is high, than drivers in air-conditioned vehicles. The more uncomfortable we are, the more aggressive we become, and if we have been uncomfortable for a long period of time, there comes a point where we are likely to break, and resolve some of our aggression and frustration through either angry outbursts, or acts of violence.

For most of July, Boston has been experiencing temperatures in the 90’s, with temperatures rarely dropping at night below the 80’s (Fahrenheit). The heat, coupled with the humidity, has both been oppressive and relentless, which in turn has likely lead to general frustration and discomfort, especially for those who don’t have access to air-conditioning. However the evidence seems to suggest, that if it is too hot, people don’t have the energy nor the desire to engage in acts of physical violence – the heat is just too oppressive, making it too much effort to do anything. So for the month of July it is likely through continued discomfort that certain individual’s levels of aggression have been building, and yet it has been too hot for them to engage in acts of violence. This past week to ten days has seen the temperature drop into the mid 80’s and high 70’s, the types of temperature, which seem to be conducive to violent crimes.

A 1978 study by Baron and Ransberger, studying group violence such as riots, concluded that collective violence increased in line with temperature up until about 85 degrees. At this point it tailed off. Whilst this study looked at group, rather than individual, violence, it recognizes that there comes a point where people would rather be indoors in front of a fan, or in air conditioning, rather than out in the heat. This is borne out by another study conducted by DeFronzo in 1984, who found that there was no correlation between violence and temperature, when it gets to be 90 or over. It may be that in the Boston shootings on Wednesday/Thursday, the temperature was low enough to bring out both aggressors, and victims. There are certainly other factors at play, such as the relationships between the shooter(s), and their victim(s), the availability and accessibility of their victims, etc. However it may be that the drop in temperature to more comfortable levels influenced the timing of these assaults.

Whilst it would be wrong to blame the temperature for the shootings and homicides, and to say that it was due to the heat that these homicides occurred, it is worth considering how the high temperatures of the preceding weeks, may have both built up levels of aggression, and lead to angry interactions with others (due to people being out and about more), whilst the recent drop in temperatures produced a more comfortable environment in which to act. It is probable that there were many other factors at play on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, however the role that the weather plays in such violent crimes has been well studied and documented in the past forty years, and bears our consideration.


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The Self Defense Component

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 2nd Aug)


Two young women were attacked in South Boston, last Saturday at 1 o’clock in the morning. One of them felt a civic duty to write a letter to Fox Boston, so that other women in the area could be aware, that there are two muggers, who are armed with what appears to be a fake gun, operating in that neighborhood. Below is an excerpt of the letter.

“We are two young professional women, who love living in Southie.  Our aim is not to spread fear, but to make people, especially young women, aware of the assault and the fact that walking in twos may not deter these males as they are bold and may jump you both.  Both of us took self-defense courses in the past and while helpful, we still did not see or hear these guys until they were on us.  We were lucky and managed to get away with minimal scrapes and some bruises.

We want to urge you to be careful and would feel incredibly guilty if we heard it happened again and we did not say anything.  I am sorry we don’t have better descriptions of the males, but they were wearing hoodies; it was dark; and they attacked us from behind.”

The young women’s account, demonstrates why self-defense/martial arts training alone should not be relied upon to keep you safe; and that without honing your self-protection skills, you will probably be found wanting, when it comes to dealing with violence. Self-defense is what you do when you’re attacked, self-protection/personal safety includes strategies, tactics and skills, to help you predict, prevent, identify and avoid violence before it occurs. If you don’t have these skills and this knowledge, it is unlikely that an attacker will give you the opportunity to apply and employ the self-defense techniques you have learnt. Self-defense training and the practice of physical techniques alone are not enough; and whilst it may not feel like you are doing much to protect yourself by learning how predatory individuals, such as muggers and rapists, work, in fact, you are doing everything. Actively training your situational awareness may feel like a grind, however without it, you are likely to get caught in a disadvantaged position, where all the odds are against you. This article is not about judging either these women or the self-defense programs they took, but rather demonstrating why it is essential to develop skills beyond the physical.

I do a fair amount of work with corporate clients. Many initially contact my company because they want to provide self-defense training to their employees – something I applaud them for. However, when they first contact us, their idea is to put on a seminar where the emphasis is on teaching their employees physical self-defense techniques. I understand this, because they are generally not aware that other forms of personal safety training exists i.e. they believe that physical self-defense training is the best way to ensure their employees stay safe. Some also have the expectation that an hour to 90 minutes will be long enough to not only cover all the essential techniques that a person will need to know, but that they will also be able to develop the necessary skills and mindset to make these techniques work in a real-life situation. Unfortunately, there are many self-defense programs out there that support this idea, and so I don’t blame them for holding this opinion. These two young women seem to have also bought in to this myth; that attending/completing a course would tick the necessary box, and that they would come away with the ability to defend themselves.

I’ve never seriously played tennis, but I know it would take me more than a few hours’ practice to prepare me for Wimbledon. I am not sure where the myth started, that a few hours of training in self-defense would be enough to prepare you for dealing with a real-life violent encounter, however it appears from this letter, that this is what the writer expected. Once again, I don’t blame her for holding this view, as we in the self-defense industry are often guilty of perpetuating this myth; we so want people to train, that we simplify what we are training people to do and overcome, so that they aren’t put off (this is one of the reasons I run a free women’s program – so that I can be honest about what real-life violence looks like). In last week’s blog, I wrote about the importance of not creating training situations and scenarios where the only possible outcome for the student is success. If you want your students to “feel” safer this approach works, however if you want them to “be” safer, they need to be put in situations where they are tested, and may fail. People do genuinely learn when they fail. The writer of the letter believes that her self-defense training wasn’t up to the job. I agree with her. It is likely that she was convinced that the course she took was enough, and she probably enjoyed enough successes that she felt she was capable and prepared.

Let us just say that she had invested the appropriate amount of time and effort in her training, that she’d been convinced that completing a few hours training wasn’t enough, and she’d dedicated a couple of hours a week for a number of years to practicing techniques and developing physical skills, etc. would she then have been able to defend herself, in this situation? Probably not. She was caught completely unaware, rushed from behind, and taken to the ground by an armed assailant. Even if you’ve trained for such a scenario, action generally beats reaction, and hitting the ground hard often takes time to recover from. However, if you were able to identify the attack, even just a few seconds before it was made, you’d have time to prepare and deal with it, and a different outcome may have been possible, in fact you may even have avoided the assault entirely.

I agree with the writer that walking with another person is little/no deterrent to dealing with a pair of armed assailants, however it should also not be taken as an inevitability that either one or both of them would end up being assaulted by these men. This in no way is intended to blame them or make them responsible for being attacked; both had done what they believed and were probably convinced was necessary to avoid becoming a victim. If either one of them had understood that walking down a street at 1 AM held its own risks that needed to be mitigated against, and had been exposed to/learned the processes that predatory individuals engage in, they might have been aware of the individuals that spotted them, carried out surveillance on them, synchronized their movement to them, and then attacked them. This takes training, and the adoption of a certain mindset, to be sure - however the idea that violence is inevitable and unpredictable is a false one, and one that we should dismiss altogether. This fatalistic notion prevents many from engaging in training that would be more than helpful and investing time/effort in learning how to protect oneself.

When you get into a car and drive, you are well aware of your personal safety, e.g. you check mirrors before you pull out, you adjust your speed to the traffic, you judge the time you have to either make a light or not, etc. The decisions you take all consider your personal safety and yet when you walk down a street, because the threats and dangers are not so immediate or apparent, you switch off. It seems a strange dichotomy that many people have; that they can imagine the consequences of a car crash, but rarely think about the consequences of being assaulted. Physical self-defense on its own is not enough, we need to adopt personal safety thinking into every aspect of our lives. I am not one who says that you shouldn’t walk down a street at 1 AM in the morning, I just believe that there are safe and unsafe ways to do this, and that with appropriate training it is possible to mitigate the risks you face, and prepare for the possible dangers that may exist.

I feel regret that I am part of an industry which presents the idea that a few hours training is enough, that all you need to do is tick a box rather than adopt a mindset, etc. Those of us who teach and deliver training have a responsibility to be realistic, and present a comprehensive approach to personal safety/self-protection and self-defense.

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