I recently had the honor of addressing the 256th annual meeting of St. Michael’s Church, the oldest church structure in Charleston. (During the American Revolution, the British used St. Michael’s steeple as their target during their artillery attack of the city; they never hit it and it is still one of the highest points in Charleston.) How did it happen that this proud (loud) Jew found himself on the pulpit of St. Michael’s, addressing the membership?
Well, St. Michael’s has a Safety Ministry that trains to handle the myriad possible emergencies that can arise in these troubled times. The members of my synagogue, along with numerous other such institutions throughout the United States, have come to realize that we can no longer exist without provision for the safety of our congregants and our guests. By happenstance, I had been introduced to members of St. Michael’s Safety Ministry and they invited me to train with them. The result has been far greater than I could have ever hoped or imagined. During the course of our training together, I have made many wonderful friends. Their generosity and support culminated in the invitation to me from the Rev. Al Zadig, the rector of St. Michael’s, to address the membership.
As I stated in my remarks to the congregation, neither my grandparents (who arrived in this blessed country in the early part of the 20th century) nor my father (born shortly thereafter) would ever have envisioned a situation in the U.S. where synagogues and churches would band together to provide for their mutual protection. It was our enemies who unwittingly brought us together and I took the opportunity to thank the members of St. Michael’s for their support of my synagogue and for the relationship that we have forged.
During the course of my training with St Michael’s, I have learned some intensely important things of which each and every one of us should be aware. One of the most important of these is the fact that those who would perform a mass attack consistently look for one type of target — sheep. They seek out those who are helpless and generally unaware of the possible dangers around them. That is why they attack churches, schools, large public venues such as concerts and places with signs that read “No Weapons Allowed” — places where they expect no resistance. If they perceive that a “sheepdog” (i.e., one who will resist them) is present, they will most often seek another target. The other consistent fact is that when they are challenged, when someone responds aggressively, the vast majority of these would-be killers most often react in a limited number of ways: They drop their weapon, and/or they run, and/or they kill themselves. But the act of reacting to an attack is just that — a reaction. If we are attacked without warning, we are already at a disadvantage. The objective for all of us should be anticipating an attack before it can occur.
In 2006, during the height of the Iraqi insurgency, Marine General James Mattis realized that a way had to be devised for his Marines to foresee dangerous situations and ordered the creation of what came to be known as the “Combat Hunter Program.” Gen. Mattis wanted his Marines to be “predators not prey.” This program has now become a full-fledged course of training that is becoming standard throughout the Marine Corps and is spreading to the other combat branches of service. But there are lessons taught in this course of training that are important for each of us, and applicable in all walks of life. I have had the chance with the folks from St. Michael’s to study a book that is the basis for the application of these principles outside of the military. The name of the book is “Left of Bang” by Jason Van Horne and Jason A. Riley, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The term “left of bang” is defined in the book in the following way: “If you were to think about an attack on a timeline, bang is in the middle. Bang is the act … and being left of bang means that a person has observed at least one of the pre-event indicators, at least one of the warning signs, that must occur earlier on the timeline for the bang to happen … Whenever a person is operating right of bang, it means that the enemy has the initiative and controls the situation.” If we are able to operate left of bang, we improve the chances of preventing “bang.” Operating right of bang means that all that we can do is mop up afterwards. It is reacting; it is being prey, not predator.
Most of us are completely oblivious to what is happening in our vicinity at any particular moment. Most of us are the “sheep” described above. This is true not only in the rare instance when we might be involved in a violent or mass attack, but also in the more frequent “accidents” that occur all of the time. A person who is walking down the street while texting can have no situational awareness. That is why we see so many videos on YouTube of texters walking straight into “bang” by colliding with a lamppost or falling into a fountain or a manhole etc. And how often do we see people texting while they are driving and veering out of their lanes, from side to side? Take your pick.
When we are not aware of what is happening around us, we increase the chances of a misadventure. To place ourselves left of bang, it is vital that we be situationally aware. We must constantly be conscious of that which is occurring around us. We must be aware of any anomaly in our surroundings, which means that we must be able to differentiate between that which is “normal,” i.e., reasonably expected, and that which doesn’t seem to belong — an anomaly. It is the anomalies that provide the clues that something might occur.
Each of us needs to develop conscious awareness of anomalies around us. If we don’t, then we can leave ourselves open to mishaps (falling into a fountain) or disasters (criminal or terrorist attacks). We need to be able to discern when something is different from the usual, when the scene is “off.” Situational awareness is a choice. It demands daily practice and benefits from training. It is an exercise that has innumerable practical applications, not the least of which is trying to preserve the safety of our surroundings.
Since becoming involved in the St Michael’s training program, I have noticed that life has become far more interesting. In attempting to remain situationally aware, I try to look for anomalies all the time. It has become a game for me. I concentrate on body language, on how someone stands or walks, on whether the clothing they are wearing is appropriate for the weather and the situation, on whether a person is perspiring if it is not hot, and even on whether someone’s smile is in his eyes and not just on his mouth. These factors are valuable not only in the effort to avoid “bang,” but in trying to ascertain the intentions of a person with whom I am speaking. It is a way of searching for genuineness. The presence of anomalies in behavior is a clue to so many of life’s encounters.
When we leave our safety and our very lives in the hands of others and trust that “someone else” will be looking out for us, we are no different than the sheep. But what do we do if we then find ourselves in a situation where there is no “sheep dog” nearby? Obviously, we cannot look after everyone, but at the very least we must be ready to take responsibility for our own safety and that of our loved ones. And we must stop thinking foolishly that “it won’t happen here.” After all, it has happened here — and can happen again. Getting and staying left of bang is the difference between being a sheep or a sheepdog. I for one intend to be the sheepdog. Leaving our lives in the hands of others is a sheep’s way of living life.