And then I realized that if a terrorist with a gun walked into the door of the restaurant, we were sitting ducks. There was no escape.
What a shame that we live in a world where this is something we think about at a time when we should be simply relaxing and enjoying ourselves.
The terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend hit a lot of us in the civilized world like a sidekick to the stomach. Many of us watched news reports from the restaurants and concert hall with the same thoughts -- what if we had been there when gunmen walked in? How do we protect ourselves against a terrorist attack?
I do not carry a gun. I don't even own a gun. Nancy and I have considered buying one to keep in the house, but I have always resisted the "concealed carry" idea. All we need in a world of hair-trigger tempers and road rage is a population of frustrated people carrying firearms.
And yet, self-defense has been my hobby since 1973. What good is self-defense in an age of terrorism?
For decades, I have endured comments such as, "You know kung-fu? I'll shoot you before you can use your kung-fu. I know Smith & Wesson."
That's a silly comment, because studies have shown that if you have a gun on you, a motivated attacker will be on top of you before you can pull the gun. And besides, you don't have to worry about defending yourself against a guy who practices kung-fu. You have to worry about the criminal who wants to kill you -- right now. He isn't messing around and he is not going to warn you in time to pull your gun.
On the other hand, you can spend decades working on empty-hand self-defense techniques only to be blown away by a radical jihadist with an assault weapon because you were seated in the wrong part of a restaurant.
None of us want to be paranoid. It is not healthy to constantly feel the urge to look over your shoulder. We must be able to relax. But we must also expect the unexpected.
And so here are a few things you can begin doing as a safety precaution:
- Always scope out the exits. Know an escape route if you need one.
- If possible, request a restaurant table near an escape route -- an exit or near the kitchen -- away from the front door.
- Sit so that your back is not to the door. Sit so that you have a view of what is happening.
- In a public place such as a mall, be mindful of who is around you and where the exits are located. When you enter a store, be aware of exits into the back rooms. Those exits sometimes lead to the outside or into another hallway, or there may be storage areas where you can hide.
- Some people say if you are in a store and employees start running in a particular direction, follow them because they may have practiced an emergency exit drill.
- Movie theaters are difficult because if you sit in the main part of the theater, and an attacker with a gun walks in, you are typically a sitting duck. One possibility is to sit closer to the exits, which are often next to the screen. In older theaters, there were also exits at the top of the stairs, but most theaters now are built differently and there is no exit at the top.
- Most importantly -- Remain Mindful and alert to what is happening around you. This does not mean to remain in a hyper-vigilant "fight or flight" mode all the time. It means to pay attention to people, sounds, and the atmosphere around you.
I have written about an incident that happened in Chicago a couple of years ago. Nancy and I were walking along the shops on Michigan Avenue when the crowd of people on the sidewalks and in the stores began getting larger. There were more young people and I noticed that their voices were growing louder as they talked and laughed.
After a few minutes, I realized that something did not feel right to me.
"Let's go back in the opposite direction," I said, and I held Nancy's hand and guided her away from the shopping area, back toward our hotel.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"My self-defense radar went off," I said. "Something isn't right."
We got clear of the crowds and stopped for dinner, then returned to our hotel room in time to turn on the 10:00 news. The lead story told of how bands of young people had started running through the crowds attacking shoppers on Michigan Avenue at exactly the location we were shopping. It had started just a few minutes after my "Self-Defense Radar" had pinged.
Nancy was impressed. She had not noticed anything, but I had remained mindful, aware of what was happening around me. It was not anything I had been doing consciously -- I was just being mindful as I normally am.
As I was reminded that night in Chicago, the best self-defense is to not be there in the first place. If you know of a bar where fights sometimes happen, stay away from that bar. If you are walking down the street and see some people hanging out that give you a bad vibe, cross the street or -- better yet -- turn and go the opposite way. Being a little inconvenienced is much better than being attacked.
I live in the Quad Cities, on the border of Iowa and Illinois. This is a pretty safe place compared to many American cities. But all you need is one mentally ill loner, or a radical young man or woman who decides to align their goals with ISIS and you can find yourself among others who say, "We never thought it would happen here."
But we cannot remain locked in our homes. We cannot be afraid to go out. If we are afraid, the terrorists achieve one of their goals -- to terrorize. So relax, breathe deeply, remain centered, enjoy your life, but remain mindful at all times.