A lot of Special Forces Green Beret training involves making decisions with limited information. Special Forces operations succeed or fail on the decisiveness of the men executing the plan.

“If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath—a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”—Dave Grossman

There are two general reactions to mass shootings or acts of terror: The sheep think, “Thank God I was not there; I would have died.” The sheep dogs think, “If I had been there, I could have done something to stop him.”

No one can plan a response an unpredictable attack like those we have seen in movie theaters and shopping malls.  One can, however, think about how to think. We can prepare and strengthen ourselves so that if we find ourselves  there, we will be prepared to do all that we can do. I don’t want to speculate about what happened in a specific event or second-guess anyone’s actions, but we can have a discussion about what we should think about for the next time.

I have seen film of the Nazis leading people to the edge of a hole where they were executed. One body would fall in and the next victim walked to the edge and repeated the process. I always wondered why they didn’t fight. I believe that they were in denial and hoped that things would turn out okay if they just cooperated.

The first thing I want to do in a shooting is dismiss the false hope that everything may work out if I do nothing. If I freeze like prey, maybe he will move on. There is a school of thought among some police officers that when you are off duty, you should be a good witness and not intervene. What do you do when they are killing witnesses?

Once you get rid of false hope, you are left with action. When you have to eat a shit sandwich, bite the corner where it is mostly bread. The truth is, your best odds are to rapidly assess, come up with a plan, and do anything that seizes initiative and initiates movement.

Tony Blauer has done more thinking and study on ambush than anyone I know. He has three golden rules for an unexpected attack:

  1. Accept what is happening. It is human nature to avoid the unpleasant and ignore the incomprehensible. Have the courage to face reality.
  2. Face the challenge. No matter what the odds, you need to rise to the challenge. Don’t accept a no-win situation.
  3. Keep moving and thinking. Countless millions have spent their last moments on Earth paralyzed by confusion. Don’t be counted among them.

When we are confronted with any problem, the human mind scrolls through our knowledge base searching for information on how to react. This is often described by survivors as “my life flashed before my eyes.” Your brain is scanning its internal data. “Man with a gun. Is there an app for that?” Merely reading this article makes you more likely to respond effectively. Imagine what a little training could do.

FBI statistics on police shootings say that overall, about 85 percent of shooting victims survive. The important lesson: You may not get hit, and even if you are hit, you probably won’t die. If you can feel pain, you can still fight.

Your best move may be to take your family away from danger. If you aren’t a cop, you don’t have a duty to act. No one can blame you if you take care of your own. You could hit the floor and shield your loved ones with your body. What happens if you are shot? Your children may have to watch you die, and you will leave them helpless.

There may be noise and smoke and darkness. People will panic and become confused. Those who know the location of the fire exits and egress routes will have an advantage. The first people to recognize there is an attack in progress have more time to plan and act. Situational awareness is the primary survival skill. Recognizing the problem is the first step in solving it. The first to move probably escaped.

What if the bad man blocks your way? As I see it, your options narrow to one. There needs to be what Tony Blauer calls a “predator-prey reversal.” Armed or unarmed, you must plan an attack. This is not a foolish act of bravado, it is the only logical alternative to imminent death for you and perhaps your loved ones.

If you have never studied a fighting style, you have the rest of your life to develop one. Noise, darkness, and confusion affect the bad guys too. There will be a pause for reloads or jams or distractions. Look for them and be ready to act.

Even if you have a firearm, you may not have a shot. A bad guy wearing Body armor might negate center-of-mass handgun shots. You need to get close. If you don’t have a gun, you shouldn’t just wait to die. I may get shot trying to take his gun, but I may get his gun. If he is fighting with me, my loved ones and others can escape.  I have trained for this fight all my life and he is just a coward with a gun. I’ll bet my life that I will win.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”—Louis Pasteur

I have been asked, “What if you act and the police shoot you in the confusion?” If the cops shoot me in the back while I’m saving a theater full of people, that is a fair trade. I just hope they don’t hit me in the spine and just cripple me. I will be a tragic hero and Woody Harrelson will probably play the role of me in the anti-gun film version.

I cannot imagine how the families and survivors must feel. My heart and prayers go out to them. More terrible than death would be the thought that I could have made a difference, but failed to act. My guilt and shame would be eternal.

We can’t stay safe in a bunker or carry enough guns to protect everyone, everywhere. We can actively look for danger, recognize and avoid it. We can mourn the innocent, but we can’t change what happened. Let us reflect on our fitness and training and prepare for tomorrow. When we are confronted by evil, we will respond as we have trained and mentally rehearsed.

Green Berets prepare themselves for that day, mentally and physically. They relish the challenge and accept the consequences. They know that “the greatest failure is the failure to try.”