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MCM180's picture
Defend a stranger against a lunatic with a knife?

My wife was bemoaning the general cowardice of American men. She mentioned a case recently wherein a lunatic with a knife got on a subway and attacked a young man, killing him. The other passengers just ducked and hid and let the young man die. 

I don't know the specifics of that incident. But generally, what are your opinions on stepping in to defend a stranger against a knife attack? Let's assume that we are very confident the victim didn't provoke the attack (that is, we're not inadvertently helping the aggressor/bad guy/enemy). 

I agree it's most un-manful and unloving to just let a hapless victim die. But does that mean heroically getting myself cut up or dead is a wise action?

I need help making this decision in the cold light of day so I don't have to make it in the heat of fear and confusion. 

Thanks in advance for your thoughts. 


Scott McCallum
Scott McCallum's picture

An interesting question and i would direct you to a similar threat in relation to a BJJ instructor dying attempting to prevent a robbery. I have a larger comment there but to summarise...

Perhaps a conversation with your wife over how she would celebrate your sacrifice if you died defending that young man might provide her with a different point of view....

Each person has to decide a line in the sand based on their own personal values and mind set.  I'm a police officer with 24 years service on both sides of the atlantic and i like to think that I would be unable to stand by and watch that happen, however most people are not wired to be able to think rationally in that circumstance and Lt Col. Dave Grossman's work in that field On Killing and On Combat make interesting reading on the psycology and physiology of human beings in combat conditons.

This speaks to the greater question of awareness and pre-planning.  Can you identify the male as armed and unstable prior to the attack, are you in a position to notify law enforcement intervention before the situation arises, what is your strategy going to be, do you have the tools and training to make a difference.  Once he has killed one person what stops him from moving on to the next, then the next. Are you with a loved one who  may be targetted if you intervene....there is no simple tick box answer here.

A couple of years ago I was off duty and walking through the downtown core where I work with my daughter who was about twelve at the time.  It was late at night and my attention was drawn to a loud and clearly intoxicated young couple who appeared in good spirits.  As I watched I noticed two young men following them and as I watched one of the males took a pair of gloves out of his pockets and put them on and the two males appeared to be psyching each other up.  I had no doubt at this point a street robbery was about to take place.  As they followed the young couple one of the males turned and scanned around behind them and looked over in our direction.  I stood clearly facing them and crossed my arms making it clear that they were being observed at which point the male who was looking at me spoke to his colleague, they both glanced at me and then turned and walked away from the couple.  Feeling very pleased with myself i then realized that i had my young daughter with me, no use of force tools with me (in Canada although the police are armed, we are not encouraged in carrying off duty) and may have made us both a target.  Fortunately we were a short distance away from one of our police buildings and I gave my daughter my access card and sent her ahead as I followed behind keeping my eyes on the two males and told her that if I ended up in a fight she was to go inside and pull the fire alarm.  Fortunately the males decided that this wasn't their lucky night and took off.

The point of this story is that actions have consequences and we have to be aware that if we get involved.  My awareness allowed me to pick up on what was happening, but i didnt have the resources with me to effectively deal with two possibly armed males while I had my daughter with me, I was able to discourage their behaviour and was able to safely withdraw.  The young couple to this day will have absolutely no idea that they were about to be robbed and my daughter still remembers the night, and is proud that she made a difference in just a small way, but remembers most of all how scared she was that I might have got in a fight and got hurt.  Was it worth it....I think so, but if i had got fatally stabbed to prevent a couple losing a wallet would it have been worth it then...I'm not so sure my family would think so.

Like I said, perhaps that conversation with your wife will help you define what is most important. 

Good Luck in your decision making process.

Scott McCallum

mike23's picture

That is one very good answer Scott but if you didn't see a knife beforehand, if the attacker didn't show any cues, if you were not scanning the crowd while on the train....If you looked past the gentleman standing in your way because you heard a scream...and if you looked and what you saw was a man visiously stabbing someone and you had no weapon or you couldn't grab a fire extingusior or someones backpack..would you jump in. You've got some fun knife defenses, you've worked with some headgear and gloves...now's the time to bet your life, your wife and your kids. Are you ready?

Scott McCallum
Scott McCallum's picture

Based on other situations I have gotten myself into off duty, then I think the answer would be yes, but for all the wrong reasons.  I think my internal value system that led me into policing in the first place would force me to act, but this would not be either the 'right choice' or a logical one. 

We did some knife training when I transferred to Canada involving shock knives, not an item available to many students but excellent if you can get your hands on one.  It is a training weapon with an electrified edge that feels as close to being cut as you can get without drawing blood.  One of the great lessons you pick up with one is that you are going to get cut in a knife fight. It also allows you to overcome some of the 'freeze' that comes along with real stress.

That being said, if you asked my wife what she would want me to do I know you would get a different answer.

In the above scenario, a person's personal morality and world view come into play.  Are you prepared to kill one person to defend another.  As a police officer I have already gone through that decision making process and decided that I believe I can.  Saying I will, until I find myself in that situation and know for sure, would be unrealistic.

Dave Grossman's analogy of sheep, sheepdog and wolves comes to mind at this point, as far as a basic understanding of the mental wiring of most people.

I think the value that the above scenario has is in making us consider the alternatives and draw a healthy line in the sand before we find ourself in that situation.  There would be as many emotional responses to that incidnet as there were onlookers, some would be glad that at least they were going home to their loved ones in one piece, there would be others who felt the same but with shame and guilt that they did nothing.  There would be some who would demand that somebody should do something, but never dream of doing anything themselves.  There would even be a small percentage of people who would feel the rush of excitement and fantasize about the situation afterwards. 

For those who make the equally valid decision that the security and wellbeing of their family is more important to them than the life of a stranger can make that decision before hand and 'give themselves permission' to retreat safely and take no further action. At least by pre-thinking of these issues people can increase their own emotional survival.

Some people believe that he who saves but one life, saves the whole world.

I am certain that there is no right answer to this scenarion.

Scott McCallum


MCM180's picture

Thanks for the replies.

Scott, I did discuss with my wife whether she'd really want me risking death in such a scenario. In the comfort and safety of our living room, she said she'd prefer I died trying to help the victim than that I cowered doing nothing. I respect that, and the big-man part of me entirely agrees. But the husband and father in me believes I'd then be leaving my own family in the wind, and I'd have done them wrong.

She also believes that if just one man stepped up to help, then many others would've helped too, and the lunatic would've been outnumbered and easily subdued. I disagree with that entirely; nor do I want to base my own safety on relying on a bunch of others to step up.

I have thought about whether it's moral to take a life to save one. (Being a concealed carry permit holder, I think about that every time I holster my firearm.) I'm comfortable that it's morally acceptable to defend life against those who would do harm or seek to kill. But I don't believe that I'm required to add my own death to someone else's.

One thing that might be informing the disagreement my wife and I have: last month, our Sensei, Sonny Kim, was killed in the line of duty at his day job on the Cincinnati police. A badguy called 911 on himself and shot the first officer who responded, to provoke a police response in what appears to be a "suicide by cop." Officer Kim Sensei was clearly doing heroic work and I thank God for him (and all others who do so...including you, Scott!). But that doesn't mean I'm called to do the same.

My wife sees a clear contrast between the heroism of Sensei Kim and what she sees as wimpy modern men...I see a clear contrast between the calling to be police for society, and a duty to protect oneself and defend and provide for one's family.



Scott McCallum
Scott McCallum's picture


Having read your comments, I watched the news report about Officer Kim, and it's very clear your city has lost  an outstanding officer and you have lost a well respected sensei and you have my condolences, but i think you hit the nail on the head when you talk of the difference in LEO's and private individuals.  As a CC permit holder your better equipped than I would be to intervene (as i mentioned here in Canada there is a disparity with the Criminal Code which would appear to allow a police officer to carry on or off duty, and at least my own service which will not support officer in off duty carrying ) but as a father and husband myself I would have to agree that your first duty is to your wife and family.

The problem with intervening in the original scenario is that there is little likelihood of talking down a severly disturbed individual and if you have an individual in an elevated state, for example, excited delerium (a medical emergency but presents as a individual acting irrationally with elevated pain threshold and often results in a metabolic crash that results in cardiac arrest and is often brough on by cocaine use) the reality is that if you are not able to knock the individual out with a single powerful strike, or the use of lethal force to end the threat, then you are going to end up struggling with someone who is soaked with their own sweat, capable of elevated strength levels and will possibly die what ever you do to them.

(One of the most effective methods of dealing with these individuals is the use of taser to allow them to be quickly taken into custody, with on hand support of EMS, to enable them to be chemically restrained to break the spiral of burn up.  Even then rapid access to medical facilities has not prevented cardiac arrest related deaths which lead to much of the myth about tasers and their misuse)

I can see that your recent loss of an inspirational figure in the form of your Sensei will have an emotional impact on your wife's view point.  That being said I think that there are many wives and husbands of service men and woman, cops, firefighters, and other lost in their service to society, who would be more than happy to trade a folder flag, no matter how proud it may look on display, with a chance to hug their loved one once more.

I know that when we moved to Canada and I went from unarmed policing to armed policing my wife felt a little better as she knows I have some competency in that area, but when I became a full time collision reconstructionist and became a step removed from the front line she began to sleep a little better at nights.  They still let me loose on the public now and again, and traffic stops are still the highest risk, highest frequency task police carry out, but i'm not doing them as often as I used to so. 

I hope you are lucky enough never to have to make the choice for real, and if you do, I hope it works out well for you and your family.

Best wishes

Scott McCallum

Ian H
Ian H's picture

An interesting discussion!

Scott, as for that couple you mentioned in your first post, i had a few thoughts.  First, the likely outcome had you not been there: the thugs yell, shove, brandish a weapon, and make their demand ... "gimme your wallet".  At that point the couple either does the sensible thing and tosses the wallet stage left and runs stage right .. or ... they do something stupid and bad stuff may or may not happen.  If the former, then no need for you to risk your daughter, and if the latter, it's a bit of "dude, you dug your own grave".

On the other hand ... the thugs weren't expecting you, wanted to committ their crime unobserved, and your presence scared them off.  Now, I don't know if you are six-foot-four and sixteen stone of no-nonsense, or not ... but I bet your years as a PO has given you a certain "carriage" and presence that sends a message.  The thugs didn't know if you were armed or not, either.  They were looking for an "easy score" ... and your attentive presence shifted that into the "potentially difficult" category, which was enough to send them in search of a softer target.  

Katz's picture

It's an interesting question to me as well.

I fully appreciate what has been said before, but just so you know, there is an intersting twist on this in France : There is a law ("Non-assistance à personne en danger") that says you are bound by law to help someone in distress.

Recently, this law has come back to the front as there were talks of suing people who stood by during a rape in an subway train car. I'm not sure how far this has gone (especially since it was probably hard to find people from the security footage alone), but the law is there.

Now, to me, this is especially interesting because I am aware of what has been said before in this thread : Sure, you can jump in and help, but if that just gets you killed, what's the point?

To me, the point is that you have to help, but that doesn't mean jumping on the guy and risking getting stabbed. It can mean simply shouting, bringing attention to the guy and showing him people will not stand by and watch (although that means you also are ready to fight, because if nobody follows, that means you just lost the surprise element). You can also pull the emergency break, get out at the first station and/or call the cops/emergency services, even pretend you are calling them on your cell phone, speaking loud so the bad guys hears it. Options are certainly more limited in a subway, since you are stuck there with the bad guy (until the next stop), and you don't always have phone service... but there are options.

The point is that there are several ways to not simply look away. You just have to choose the best for your skills.

mosul's picture

two thoughts

In the particular instance as described it would be very difficult to see a positive outcome. Unless your training specifically inlcudes scenario based applications of the principle of defending strangers then you are winging it in the worst possible manner.

Secondly in Scotts example of being off duty and preventing street crime by being obvious; The 'muggers' did not know you were a PO as you were off duty and accompanied by a minor. In effect you were a member of the public. If more members of the public took notice of things rather than turned a blind eye then how much more difficult would it be for the train stabbing to take place. A populace that is willing to be a witness in court would have how much impact?

As commuters we justify the blind eye by asking "should I die for a stranger?" those of us in low rent neighbourhoods are proud to never snitch. A mindset that only serves to keep our manor cirme-rich. 

I would say that it is ones moral duty to always confront those who would be aided by our scilence. No more confrontation than clearly saying I am watching is required. While ensuring the opportunity remains to apply the Usain Bolt principle of self protection after having  made your point.

Dale Parker
Dale Parker's picture

So MCM180, your wife is judging all American men from a single inncident?  Interesting.

I believe what probably happened is the phenomenon of large cities called the bystander effect, or bystander apathy.  While I won't claim to be an expert on it, it isn't so much to do with courage, as if fewer people were involved, and not in a large city, it may have been different.  Please note I said may have, I think due to social media and technology, even small cities and rural areas are starting to have the same social problems as large population areas.

Just my 2 bits.

MCM180's picture

Dale Parker wrote:

So MCM180, your wife is judging all American men from a single inncident?  Interesting.

I believe what probably happened is the phenomenon of large cities called the bystander effect, or bystander apathy.  While I won't claim to be an expert on it, it isn't so much to do with courage, as if fewer people were involved, and not in a large city, it may have been different.  Please note I said may have, I think due to social media and technology, even small cities and rural areas are starting to have the same social problems as large population areas.

Just my 2 bits.

Not just from one incident. She knows a lot of us American men. It's a general trend she sees (and I agree with it) that American men are somewhat less manly than they (we) used to be. While I agree with that observation, I don't think the response is to get myself killed and leave my family without the man they've got.

I agree that the bystander effect may have been involved. She sort of does too, which is why she thought that one person standing up might have broken the bystander thing and made a difference.