Training Methods That Can Mislead

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 31st Oct)

This article comes out of a conversation/thread on social media that I was involved in. During the conversation, I mentioned that striking, and especially striking with a simultaneous block, isn’t always effective – I’m not saying that it’s never effective, just that there are times, especially when you are dealing with knives, that your emphasis should be on controlling the weapon arm at the earliest opportunity, before moving on to combatives, etc. One response that I received, advocated the use of simultaneously striking, whilst blocking against a knife attack (and once again, I’m not saying this isn’t ever effective), based on the fact that when training against an “assailant” wearing protective cage headgear they only needed 20% power in their punches to be effective. There is sometimes a danger in drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of things, based on the way that we train. There are times that our training replicates reality, and times when it may mislead us. In this blog, I want to look at some of our training methods that, while they may be beneficial in one context, may not be in others - and why we should be aware of this.

Training in protective headgear has benefits, however we must be careful about the conclusions we draw when training with such equipment. As soon as you put headgear on, you increase the size of the target quite considerably. Also, headgear tends to “flatten” out the target, presenting a striking surface that is much easier to hit. The face/head is largely a cylindrical striking surface, which can result in strikes/punches rolling off it, rather than being absorbed by it. If you then put any form of protective mitt or glove on the hand, you increase the size of the striking surface. A larger striking surface, hitting a larger, flatter target, gives you a much better chance of accurately landing a strike that will drive into the target, when compared to a fist hitting the face. When you add the fact that most headgear, by weight or design, prevents the head from turning when hit, the effect you get when training this way, does not reflect reality. Are there benefits to training this way? Absolutely. If we are to try and put our students under pressure and give them a feel for what a dynamic assault looks like (in a safe manner), putting on headgear and gloves helps us to do this. However, determining the efficacy of striking in every situation based on this manner/style of training would be wrong. In real-life, punches don’t always get absorbed to the same degree that they do when training with gloves and headgear; they roll off, they get ridden, etc. In some cases, against a pain-resistant attacker (under the effects of adrenaline, drugs or alcohol) they don’t even register – and this is something that is extremely difficult to replicate in training. Just because one method of training has certain benefits and usefulness, this shouldn’t lead us to believe that it accurately reflects reality.

Sparring is another training method that has great benefits, but shouldn’t be thought of as replicating a real-life fight. It teaches a lot of things but it doesn’t teach everything, and this is something that we need to understand when we try and give our students the skills and attributes they need to survive a real-life altercation. With any training method, such as sparring, we should be aware of the skills that the method is trying to develop. Sparring teaches breathing, threat recognition, dynamic responses, movement, etc., however it doesn’t replicate an assault, because it’s consensual, with each participant separating and giving distance to give the other opportunities, etc. Sparring, is a back and forth game, rather than the one-way street that an assault is. I have had students who were lousy at sparring, but could handle themselves in real-life altercations – hopefully their experiences when sparring helped them, but it would have been wrong to predict how they would have responded to an actual assault based on their sparring performance on the mats. I believe sparring has benefits, but like any training approach, I recognize its limitations.

We should also recognize when our equipment may produce bad habits, or make it difficult for our students to perform good technique. A long time ago, I stopped having my students practice punching on kick shields, or other large flat pads. When I took my first IKMF course, I was told by an instructor that the first equipment I should invest in were kick shields, as these were the most versatile pads and could be used for all manner of striking. In one sense, he was right, but what I started to notice was that because my students were striking a flat surface directly in front of them, they weren’t turning their hips into the strike, and were simply punching straight forward with their arms and shoulders, and not utilizing the larger hip and back muscles. When I started to use focus mitts for training punches, having the holder angle the pad, so that the person throwing the strikes had to turn their torso to make the punch, the problem was rectified. Are kick/striking shields useful? Yes, like all pieces of training equipment they have their place, but they shouldn’t be used universally.

Another issue that can arise from training with pads, is that unless the pads are moved, the student only gets good at striking against static targets, and may be left with a false sense of their ability to generate power. There is a big difference about how you generate power when moving than when static, and when we consider that real-life violence is dynamic, we should introduce dynamism into our pad work. This is something that those practicing combat sports understand very well, but is not so prevalent amongst the reality-based self-defense community. If you practice dynamic pad-work as well as static pad-work, fantastic. If you don’t, I would advocate that you should start.

The full training package that we offer/present to our students should replicate and represent all parts, and potential parts, of a real-life altercation, however we don’t need to do it utilizing just one method or approach. We should be very clear about what skills we are trying to train and develop, whilst at the same time understanding what isn’t being trained, and/or isn’t representative of reality. In my early days of teaching and training Krav Maga, I convinced myself that real-life reflected the way I’d been trained (I even rewrote some of my previous experiences of violence to fit in with some of the things I’d been taught), and was surprised when it didn’t. Our training should reflect reality, and not the other way round, and this means constantly analyzing our methods, and amending and developing them as necessary.       


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Is Krav Maga Relevant

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 24th Oct)

In the time that I’ve been training both in Israel and other countries, I have found that there are basically two approaches to teaching/training Krav Maga: a traditional one, and a more progressive one. The “traditional” method of training, takes the system/techniques that Imi laid down, and with minor alterations and developments, presents them as a solution to violence. The progressive approach, which I have seen instructors teach, both within the IDF and in the civilian sector, looks at the types of violent situations that they (and their students) are likely to face, and how Krav Maga techniques and solutions can be used to deal with them – in some cases making major alterations, and in others developing new solutions altogether, based on the principles and tactics that Imi laid down/advocated. It is also worth noting that Imi did not develop Krav Maga in a bubble/vacuum and that there are others who played a part, and had an influence, on what we refer to as Krav Maga – in fact, when Imi first left the IDF, he didn’t refer to what he taught as Krav Maga, and used terms such as Ju-Jitsu and self-defense to describe his system. The reason I mention this, is that within the IDF the Krav Maga which is taught is influenced by many different instructors who modify, cross-pollinate and influence the systems of hand-to-hand that are taught.

One of the issues I have with some of the “traditional” approaches to Krav Maga is not with techniques or principles, but with the presentation of what violence looks like. Much of the original approach to Krav Maga was based on the idea that the person being attacked was always, or in most cases, assaulted from a position of surprise. From a military perspective, this makes a lot of sense - if you have time to see your enemy/assailant you will probably not engage them hand-to-hand, but elect to use a rifle or other firearm, etc. The time when this option may be taken away from you, is when you are surprised, and find your attacker on top of you before you have the chance to use a weapon. Where social violence is concerned, most assaults happen face-to-face, with some form of verbal exchange preceding the physical attack i.e. you have a chance not to be surprised and caught off guard. When this reality isn’t trained or presented as the most likely scenario a student will face, a warped and skewed understanding of what violence looks like is conveyed. It’s like looking at news and media reports on sexual assaults on women, and concluding that in the majority of cases, the attacker ambushes their victims by jumping out from behind something or tackling them from behind. Whilst these types of attack do occur, they are relatively rare and uncommon (which is one of the reasons why the media picks up and reports on them) compared to the face-to-face rapes and sexual assaults that women face in their own homes, or others, by someone they know. Yes, we do need to know how to defend ourselves in a 360-degree fashion, however such assaults do not happen on an equal basis, as for civilians most happen from the front – after a period of dialogue.

This means we have an opportunity not to be surprised. It is worth at this juncture pointing out that surprise is different to denial and unpreparedness. I have seen people standing, laughing, and generally looking confused as an aggressive individual shouts, screams and makes threats towards them. Such individuals are “surprised” by an attack because they are in denial about the reality facing them. As good as a 360 block is as an instinctive response to a circular punch that an attacker may make in such a situation, we shouldn’t be training it as the initial response when dealing with such a scenario – we should be looking at de-escalation, effective positioning to limit/restrict an attack, when and how to pre-emptively strike, etc. Emotionally and psychologically, we should be teaching students how to shake the state of denial and prepare themselves for violence, rather than just teaching them what to do when surprised. In many cases “surprise” is a choice, and we should be training ourselves and our students not be caught in such a state. Yes, there may be times that you are sucker punched, attacked from the rear – which normally happens when you are engaged with a primary attacker face-to-face – caught off guard, etc., but teaching solutions to violence from the “worst case” scenario standpoint is not realistic when looking at the most effective ways to deal with real-life situations. Unfortunately, when Krav Maga is presented primarily from the position of “surprise”, it ceases to be relevant (it can, of course, still be traditional and authentic), and many out there considering it as a reality based self-defense system see it as unrealistic.

Technology changes, and solutions need to be updated and/or put into context. I see many long gun disarms that rely on grabbing the barrel of the weapon. In the days when assault weapons that fired semi and full automatic were not distributed as widely as traditional single fire rifles (e.g. in the 1940’s), grabbing the barrel of a rifle would have been a fairly good solution as a means of initially controlling the weapon. With a weapon on semi or fully automatic fire, the barrel gets extremely hot (even the handguard can become hot enough to be uncomfortable to handle). Whilst I have seen some groups and associations update their solutions to take this into account, I have seen others fail to evolve their solutions. Yes, there may be times when the only possible solution – because of the situation – is to grab the barrel, however the context of such situations need to be explained, and the student/practitioner told what to expect, etc. There are also assaults/attacks that were once common and that have changed e.g. two-handed chokes may have been a common attack in one era, however presenting them as a common attack in today’s day and age is so unrealistic, that it makes Krav Maga look to be an outmoded/outdated system.

Don’t get me wrong, for “traditional” Krav Maga to continue to be relevant doesn’t require a revolution, it just requires a degree of evolution; something Imi acknowledged in the creation of the original “Kauf Mem” logo, where the Hebrew letters of K and M were surrounded by a circle with two breaks in; one to let out dated techniques/solutions, and one to let new ones in. Unfortunately, this has not always, and will not always be the case, as individuals and organizations fail to evolve because they feel that by losing the “traditional” techniques and solutions, they will lose some of their authenticity. Of course, in a real-life confrontation, a student shouldn’t be worried about whether what they learnt is authentic, instead they should be looking to trust in the relevance of the solution.          

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That Will Never Work On The Street

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 16th Oct)

How many martial artists does it take to change a lightbulb? 100. 1 to get up on a chair to change it, and the other 99, to tell them that their “technique” would never work on the street. The “it would never work on the street” argument, is one that every martial arts/self-defense instructor will have been subjected to at some point. More often than not, no actual argument is made as to why a technique wouldn’t work, or a better solution offered, etc. there is no discussion, and not even debate - what is being criticized is simply dismissed. In this article, I want to share some of the general things I look for in a technique, as to ascertain whether it has merit for me, personally and/or for my students.

Firstly, I don’t believe in absolute statements – they have a danger of tripping up the person who makes them. I remember a discussion I had in Israel with some other European Krav Maga instructors, from different associations, in which we were sharing some different ideas and approaches to various threats and attacks. Everything was going great, and we were all broadly agreeing with each other’s input, when I demonstrated a certain knife control. One of the Israelis who was with us, stated that it was an interesting solution that he hadn’t seen before, and that he would like to try/test it a bit. The solution/technique wasn’t “traditional” Krav Maga, but was one that someone who used to work door/bar security had taught me; and that he’d used successfully on a number of occasions. Before we had a chance to play around with it, one of the European instructors jumped in to say that it was a bad technique that would never work. The technique was one that I’d used successfully a few weeks earlier, so I had firsthand experience of it working, and the knowledge that it had worked on several occasions for the person who taught it to me. This is the danger when absolute statements are made, as you may well be talking to a person who has used a technique or tactic, and made it work. This doesn’t necessarily make it a good technique that everybody should learn – both myself and the person who taught it to me had a very strong background in Judo, and the technique relied heavily on the skills and attributes that training in this discipline brings. Was the technique a good, universal technique? Probably not, but for a Judoka, it worked well. When looking at/evaluating a technique, one of the things I look at is what skills and attributes are needed to make it work. Just because I may not possess them, doesn’t mean the technique won’t work for those who do. Skills and attributes count for a lot e.g. Terry O’Neill, a famous British doorman, used to end most of his fights/confrontations, using a high kick; but according to many reality based self-defense instructors, high kicks don’t work on the street.

Context is perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts when it comes to “evaluating” self-defense techniques. A technique that might be appropriate for one situation, may not be appropriate for another. If your self-defense experiences only come from the dojo/studio, a particular technique may seem universally appropriate – and may even be taught as such. In reality, situations determine solutions, and there may be times when it is impossible to apply what you thought would work in every situation. A fight is a dynamic thing, and sometimes an aggressor’s fast movement, and close proximity make things that worked well in the studio, fall apart extremely rapidly, in real life. In a certain context they were “good” and “reliable” but in another, wholly inappropriate and even dangerous. A good way to test whether your gun disarming techniques are appropriate for all situations, or whether you may require some alternative methods, is to have a partner with a small frame revolver or pistol repeatedly strike you with it, as they move you in a variety of directions – be honest and record your success rate. If a high percentage of your disarms fail, you need to ascertain whether it is down to a lack of skills and attributes (and what amount of training it would take to address this), or whether your “standard” disarms don’t enjoy a great deal of success in this context. This doesn’t mean they are bad techniques, but just that, like any technique, they can be limited by context.

When I evaluate a technique, for my personal use (I have certain skills and attributes my students don’t, or don’t yet possess) or for my students, one of the things I look at, is whether the technique takes into account the assailant’s potential response to it. When I deal with knife, I look to take away movement of the weapon/weapon arm, and wrap/clasp the weapon arm as soon as possible. The reason I look to do this, is because I know my attacker will begin to retract/retain their weapon, as soon as I try to control it. If a technique fails to acknowledge the potential response(s) an attacker will make when a particular technique is employed, I know that the technique has certain failings or certain skills need to be trained in order to get it to work. My evaluation of whether the technique has merit for me, is based on the time I believe it will take me to develop the necessary skills to get a high enough percentage score where the technique is successful – otherwise I may be better off looking at other techniques that enjoy a similar success rate, but require fewer skills and attributes in order to make this happen. It doesn’t mean the technique is a “bad” one, just that those who will be able to make it work, possess necessary skills, which I would need to work on and develop.

 Another thing I look at in a technique is the position it puts me in, should it fail e.g. do I have a next solution/technique I can try to implement, or has my commitment to a particular technique been an all or nothing endeavor? Don’t get me wrong, there are times when absolute commitment to what in other situations, would be a sub-par solution, is necessary – if an assailant denies you use of preferred solutions that enjoy a relatively high success rate, you may need to commit to one that in normal circumstances you wouldn’t use/employ. This is where it is important to understand the context in which a solution is being taught. Our preferred solutions should give us options if they are to fail e.g. we should end up in a better, rather than worse, position if we are not successful in employing them. Failure to acknowledge that a technique can fail, due to our poor performance, or the actions of our assailant, is a dangerous oversight to make. Knowing what to do, and having a course of action you can take when a technique fails, is an extremely important survival skill to have.

Saying “never” and making absolute statements, without first examining context, looking at skills and attributes, considering responses, and looking at different outcomes, may result in you dismissing something that may have some merit, or at least enhance your understanding of your own solutions. Any and every technique can be made to, and will work in the right context/situation, and it is worth remembering that. Whether the technique is a relevant one for you personally, is another matter.

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Group Violence (Part 2)

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 10th Oct)

Violent criminals aren’t stupid, they know how to stack the odds in their favor – this is why they may choose to carry a weapon and/or commit their crimes as part of a group. There are three assumptions I always make when dealing with an aggressive individual: that they are armed, they are able to effectively respond to what I do, and that they are assisted by others. The fact that criminals often don’t work alone is one of the reasons that it is imperative to exit the environment at the earliest opportunity. You may believe that you are only dealing with one person, however more may be present, and the longer you stay in a particular location, the more time you give them to get involved. One of the things that often gets left out of training is this “disengagement” piece e.g. a person practices a gun disarm, steps back, motions to tap and rack it (possibly mimicking the clearing of a jam), and then stands there, pointing the firearm at their training partner- and the scene ends there. Without going into all the reasons you shouldn’t trust your safety to a firearm you know nothing about, the location you are in is obviously not a safe one – so why stay around, even if the firearm you’ve just disarmed is working and operable? This is unfortunately when ego, rather than survival, infects our training. When the scene ends, with one person standing pointing a weapon they’ve just disarmed, they are in a position of supposed control and dominance. If they leave, and exit the scene, then who’s come out “on top” in the scenario is unclear. Really, the safest option in any such scenario, is to exit before a third party can become involved.

A student of mine was once mugged by a teenage kid who was armed with a gun. She did the right thing and complied, handing over her wallet and phone. The kid then walked 10 paces or so, to an adult who was sitting in a car observing the whole scene, who then drove them both off. Whilst she was being robbed, she was unaware that there was an accomplice involved. Could she have performed a disarm? Yes. Could she have stood pointing the gun at her assailant, telling him to “back away”? Yes. These were all options, yet she hadn’t noticed an accomplice, and even if she had, she had no knowledge about how he would act/respond if she attempted to disarm her assailant. If her attacker hadn’t backed off, and remained pointing the gun at her – no longer adhering to the script of the mugger – a physical response would have been necessary, and once performed, she would have needed to exit the location before the accomplice would have time to get involved. It is also worth noting, that there may well have been others who were positioned ready to get involved. She only spotted one accomplice. If we assume, and factor in, that the person we are dealing with is always assisted, then we should be more willing to comply with demands and actions that don’t affect our survival (such as complying with a mugger), and quick to disengage and exit the location/environment as soon as we can. A great piece of advice that was given to me on a tactical driving course I took many years ago, concerning how you deal with hazardous situations was, “Slow in, fast out.” When dealing with violence I have found this to be extremely useful; try to slow what will be a fast-moving situation, and once you’ve dealt with it, exit quickly. There is rarely a good reason to stay in a place where you have just been assaulted, especially when you assume your assailant can be assisted further.

Exiting the environment to avoid third parties, who could come and assist your primary assailant, stays true, even if you still have skin in the game, after you’ve dealt with the initial assault/threat. If you are assaulted as you return to your car in the parking lot, depending on the situation it may be safer to exit the lot, rather than continue moving towards your car. Leaving and returning with the support of law enforcement/security may be a safer option. Just because one phase of the conflict seems to have ended, doesn’t mean that you are safe.

Accomplices may make themselves visible from the outset, rather than remain hidden. Criminals in groups can use each other to create barriers that block people and restrict their movement, and obscure whatever criminal activity they are engaging in. A fairly common mugging tactic, on the London tube network, was for a group to converge on somebody who was standing on a platform, and surround them. As well as being intimidating, having so many aggressors surrounding you at such a close distance, the actual robbery would be obscured from CCTV cameras, and any individuals who might inform security, of what was happening. One simple tactic to avoid being a victim of such a mugging, is to keep changing your position on the platform, so that it is difficult for a group to form around you. Other criminals who worked the tube network, such as pickpockets, would use accomplices, and members of their group, to cause bottlenecks that slow movement down, allowing the person who is targeting the victim/mark to have more time to commit their crimes e.g. a group on an escalator, would get off it very slowly, so that the actual pickpocket had more time to target someone who was behind them, etc.

Groups and gangs intent on causing you harm, may also give a warning as to their intent, by fanning out as they approach you. If there is a group of five people who are closely grouped, and they start to spread themselves out across your path, they are effectively “fanning” out. Fanning out accomplishes a few things. Firstly, it restricts the intended target’s movement, meaning that it will be difficult for a person to move around the group and will instead have to continue through them – if they intend to keep moving in the same direction. The other benefit to the group in fanning out is that it can bring all of their members into the fight, rather than having some stuck behind others. For those interested in military history, this approach of spreading individuals out, rather than grouping people together was a deciding factor in the battle of Waterloo. The British used to fight using the “line”. This saw their infantry spread out along a line, with each soldier being able to fire, without being obstructed by a person in front of them. By contrast the French, marched in ranks, meaning that it was only possible for the first few ranks to fire, as the ones behind them were being blocked by those in front. Because of the differences in these formations the British were able to bring greater firepower to the battle. The sensible option when you see a group start to fan out, is to put ego aside, and move away.

Avoiding group violence is preferable to having to deal with it, and understanding how a group operates, and what situations they favor is key in doing this. Even if you are dealing with someone who looks as though they are operating on their own, you should assume they have third parties who can assist them – and the longer you stay in a compromised location, the more likely this is.           

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Violence Towards Animals

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 2nd Oct)

Before I write the 2nd article on group violence, I wanted to address something that came up in the news this week. I’m an animal lover. I simply don’t understand abuse or violence towards animals. There are actually very few animals on this planet, which mean us harm, and most want to bond with us in some way- something which humans do not always earn/deserve. This week, I was asked via social media to sign a petition, to get the Fayettville (Arkansas) police to prosecute a group of high school students who had hired a baby goat, to abuse at a party they were holding e.g. they filmed themselves breaking a beer can open on the head of the animal, etc. Unfortunately, violence towards animals is often discounted, and not taken seriously, which sends a message of acceptability to those who engage in it, and reflects very poorly on our societies (The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Gandhi). However, when such crimes go unpunished, a valuable record that could be used to predict more violent crimes is lost. In many cases, hurting and killing animals for entertainment, is a precursor to similar actions, committed against humans.

Two of the greatest predictors of psychopathy that manifests itself in the form of serial killing, are arson, and the torture and killing of animals. Both are destructive behaviors, which gives the individual the feeling of complete power and control over others. Serial killers seek to exert complete control over their victims, and at a young age, animals may be the only creatures that they can dominate and have access to. In the video, where one of the high school students smashes his can over the head of the frightened goat – who is held in place as she struggles to get away – there are no signs of remorse over the distress and pain of the animal. In fact, this merely adds to the humor, for these individuals. It takes little imagination to see how a human could be substituted for the goat, in this scene. It would be wrong to make a leap, based solely on this piece of evidence, to say that these teenagers are going to develop into serial killers, however without an arrest, there is no record of this happening - and if one is later arrested for arson, there is no way for the connection between these two predictors to be made. Often, when we ignore or discount lesser crimes, we can fail to predict more serious ones.

We know of active shooters, who have engaged in the torture and killing of animals, before they turned their attention towards humans. William Bryan Cruse, who in 1987, who went on a killing spree at a shopping center in Florida, killing 6 and injuring 14, was known to attach animals to his fence with wire, and leave them there to die. Andrew Golden, who with Mitchell Johnson, was responsible for the massacre at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas (1998), which saw 5 students killed, and a further 10 injured, had previously killed a fellow classmate’s cat, with a BB gun. Killers will often experiment and “practice” on animals, before they move on to human victims. Becoming a killer is a process that occurs over time. For some, the torture and killing of animals becomes something of an addiction, that needs to be fed with ever more serious prey e.g. they may begin with mice and rats, graduate onto cats, and later move on to dogs, and larger animals, until they will only be satisfied by torturing and killing another human being.

Another “lesser” crime that is often a predictor of a greater one, is the stealing of women’s underwear. Whilst this can be a fetish in its own right, it is can also be a good predictor, that the perpetrator will eventually move on to sexual assault, and rape, sometimes becoming a “peeping tom” in between. For certain types of rapists, such as Power Assurance rapists, they need to feel that they have a certain type of relationship with their victim. If they have spied on them previously and possess, “intimate” items such as underwear, they can create in their mind some form of fantasy that sees them and their target being in some form of relationship. Strange as it is, these predators, believe that their victim is already in love with them and doesn’t realize it, or will fall in love with them during the assault. Stealing underwear from clothes lines, or shared washer/driers in communal living spaces, is something that should be treated seriously and given the appropriate attention it deserves, as this could be an indicator that somebody has been selected for an assault.

It is important that certain “lesser” crimes be pursued and prosecuted, not just so that justice is served (though that is a reason in and of itself), but because such a record, allows for a profile to be built, that may help us predict future violence and crimes. Understanding how certain crimes are linked can help law enforcement solve current cases e.g. we are now aware that sexual predators who are incarcerated for long sentences often see their target/victim groups change over the years; a serial rapist who 15 years ago preyed upon a certain demographic, such as women aged between 18 and 25, can change their interest over time to boys aged 8 to 12. It used to be that when a child was abducted in a neighborhood, the only sexual predators living in the neighborhood who were interviewed and suspected were those who had prior offenses against the demographic the missing child fell into. Now that the potential for a target group to shift is understood, those sexual predators who may have once, many years prior, targeted adult victims, are now included in the list of potential suspects. If we are aware that violence against animals can also develop and evolve into sadistic and psychopathic violence towards humans, then a similar “link” can be made.

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