“These strange men followed me around the store and then I saw them again when I was putting my groceries in my car. They walked right towards me and I just know they were going to attack me but they went away after I made eye contact with them so they knew that I saw them. I called the cops, but they wouldn’t even take a report! That’s why I’m posting it on social media, so you can be warned!”
“After shopping at the local mall today, I found a business card under my windshield. I was smart, though, and didn’t stop to take it off, and just got in my car and left. In case you didn’t know, that’s how human traffickers mark their targets. When you’re busying grabbing the card, they grab you! Watch out and don’t fall for this scam!”
We’ve all seen variations of this kind of post, especially in local neighborhood groups. Very often, they’re almost entirely imaginary, whether made up as a cautionary tale or from a gross misinterpretation of innocent coincidences. At the same time, they’re very often told in good faith, as a genuine alert against possible danger. While you shouldn’t share them without confirmation of a specific threat in your area, they can serve as a useful reminder of a few things.
First, the very fact that stories like these rarely add up is a clue. In most of America, the types of crimes highlighted by these types of warnings are generally pretty uncommon. There’s no evidence of an enormous epidemic of human trafficking that involves parking lot kidnappings, whether of children or attractive young women. Gang members are not as a group filtering out into suburbia to prove their toughness by finding random targets of violence. That’s not to say that there aren’t assaults and other bad things happening in those settings. As compared to other places we spend our time, they’re even more likely to happen there. Most of what we’re actually likely to see, though, are either attacks coming from people we know who want to harm us for whatever reason, or truly random crimes of opportunity committed by folks looking for the easiest possible victim where they’re at right now. Organized crimes, though? Probably not. And that’s a good thing, because it’s often easier to see those coming and defend against them.
We talked last week about potentially being hurt by former and current intimate partners. Physically abusive relationships can escalate to public violence, especially after the abused person attempts to walk away. Those aren’t the only people we know who can become potential attackers, though. Whether you are connected to someone by blood, friendship, or acquaintanceship, you can become a target for a variety of reasons. In most cases, you probably already have an inkling of who could be coming after you, though, and can or have already put in place the measures mentioned earlier. The same kinds of strategies work against them as against random strangers too: avoiding settings where an attacker could feel empowered to come after you because of darkness or isolation, avoiding distractions such as cell phones or overly full hands while moving through those spaces, and moving confidently and prepared with self-defense tools.
Don’t get too excited about the opportunity to use those tools, though. Sometimes these stories include details about how the poster scared off a potential attacker by using pepper spray or drawing their gun, and you might think it’s a good idea to do that too, if faced with a similar situation. Just because someone says on the Internet that they did it and it worked without getting them in trouble doesn’t mean that it really happened that way or that they were right in doing so. The only time lethal force, which includes drawing your gun or sometimes even showing it to somebody, can be used is if you are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. Relevant particularly to women, imminent danger can sometimes include a potential attacker who appears much larger or stronger than you, or having a reasonable fear of rape. If you can’t articulate why a regular person might think so in your shoes, you don’t have the right to use that type of force. Lower levels of force, like pepper spray, very bright flashlights, or even just using your voice to challenge and set boundaries, give you a greater margin of error to not irreparably harm someone who may be entirely innocent of anything but being oblivious.
It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. But for most of us? It’s important to be prepared with the entire continuum of defensive skills from keeping an eye out for weirdos to being able to shoot someone trying to kill us. It’s also important to remember how very unlikely it is that we’re going to need those more dramatic skills. Obviously, when we need them, nothing else will do. We’re just…probably not going to need them to respond to the situations described in breathless warnings on social media.