The Ambiguity Zone, Part 2: Crossing the line
In the first installment I introduced the idea that there is a period in any incident timeline when the nature of the encounter is as yet unclear. Whether it’s the shady character hanging around the gas pumps or the storm brewing offshore, the threat that activates the “go button” hasn’t yet materialized but the likelihood of it doing so is greater than normal.
The Ambiguity Zone is that space of time, no matter how long or short, where potentially life-altering decisions must be made with the limited information available. Do we respond, or wait for the situation to become clearer?
Of course we could take the position of “better safe than sorry” and activate our emergency response plans every time there’s even a first hint of potential danger. There are a couple of problems with doing so.
The sky is falling. Or is it?
First, we’d be going to “Code Red” all the time. After a few such incidents, our brains (and perhaps everyone around us) will start to react like villagers in the old story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf: it didn’t happen any of those other times, so it isn’t happening now. When the threat does actually manifest itself, the response may not be as rapid or substantial as necessary — if there is one at all.
Second, and more importantly, the response to the incident may not be appropriate yet. Drawing a holstered pistol at the approach of a stranger is likely to be seen as overly aggressive most of the time. Yes, one has to be wary, but escalating the encounter to the level of lethal force when that force is not warranted is a good recipe for arrest — or worse.
How, then, are reliable decisions to be made when the situation isn’t exactly known?
One toe over the line
Some time ago I wrote about the idea of the tripwire: the “line in the sand” which serves as the indicator that response is necessary. It serves as a pre-planned activation response; if the tripwire has been crossed, the decision has been made for us.
It can also be thought of as the point of no return, when we commit to an action because it’s necessary to respond to a clearly developing incident.
Tripwires help us make better decisions because they serve to resolve conflicting information. For instance, someone walking toward a gathering with a rifle slung on his shoulder might be (poorly) exercising his Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Or he might be a mass murderer getting ready to kill a bunch of innocent people. Which is it?
Clearly, drawing a gun on him isn’t (yet) appropriate, but when does it become appropriate? When does his intent to do harm manifest itself? If we’ve established a tripwire for that kind of event, we know without further analysis that it’s time to respond. The tripwire makes the decision process more efficient.
In this example, one person’s tripwire might be the sound of the attacker’s first shot. Another person’s might be the moment when the suspect puts both hands on the rifle; another might see it as the muzzle starting to come on target, regardless of any other indicators.
Those tripwires might also vary with the environment. Walking around a city street with a rifle is different than walking toward a church with a rifle, for instance. The former may only elicit close observation, while the latter may result in armed security personnel engaging him.
Whatever the tripwire is, it must be specific enough to prevent false alarms, but not so specific that the situation can escalate without triggering a response.
A tripwire that’s too vague (“whenever I’m scared”) might result in a false positive — like this story of the college student who came home to surprise her mother, only to get shot because her mother was scared by the noise she made.
On the other hand, one that’s too specific might result in no response if the conditions aren’t exactly right.
The trick is to decide on the right tripwires.
How to set a tripwire
In order to do this, it’s necessary to think of many different (but plausible) scenarios and how they might be handled.
For instance, you might decide that if you’re in a bank that’s being robbed you’ll cooperate and be a good witness for police. If, however, the robbers force everyone into a room and to kneel on the floor, that’s a very good indication they plan to murder all of the witnesses. The former might not trip your pre-established wire, but the latter most certainly should!
Admittedly, this requires some effort. You have to consider all of the environments you typically find yourself in, and think about what the dangers might be and how you’d respond to specific circumstances. In addition, you’ll need to think about how they’re the same or different, and what commonalities you can use to streamline the decision-making process.
Yes, it’s a lot of work, but I submit that it’s far better than “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out”.
But how do you know the wires you’re setting are actually appropriate?
I’ll tackle that question next time.
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- Posted by Grant Cunningham
- On September 13, 2019