Or it might only be a weird coincidence that every street fight I see is two flailing unpleasant people falling into the same clumsy heap, and every street fight I hear about involves an untrained weakling settling a dispute with a flying kick. -- Seanbaby

Seanbaby is an internet humorist known for over-the-top reviews on the more absurd elements of popular culture, but every once in a while he writes about something more serious. This quote, although humorously stated, makes an important point about the difference between what happens in an emergency situation, the ideal response that people imagine, and the muddled results that actually result.

I have trained in various forms of martial arts for over a dozen years, off and on. I have also had brief CPR training. I have used both of these skills in real-life emergencies. In general, I don't like to talk about my martial arts studies, since as far as martial arts go, there are so many people who are much better experts than me. Also, even if I was an expert, explaining your theories on martial arts to people is generally a bit overbearing. But I feel like I can speak as something of an expert here, because instead of talking about how much I can do, I want to talk about how much I can't do.

But first I want to talk about Dirty Harry, and its most famous scene. In the most famous scene of Dirty Harry, the titular heroes lunch is interrupted by a bank robbery, which he walks outside to foil, equipped with a handgun. After trading shots and seeing a car careen on the sidewalk, he walks up to an injured bank robber and says that while he can't remember whether he had fired five or six bullets, the punk should ask himself whether he felt lucky. The robber surrenders, and we find out that Harry was bluffing. During the scene, he calmly walks and talks, and even finishes chewing his sandwich. As a cinematic scene, it is wonderfully done. As a template for how anyone can be expected to react in a violent situation, it is ridiculous.

I can tell you what I remember about the last emergency situation I was involved in. I was working at a farmer's market, and I got a call on my walkie-talkie that there had been an injury. I ran to the information booth to get our first aid kit, and then ran back to where the injury had occurred. I don't remember how I knew where it had occurred, even though I had run past it on the way to get the first aid kit. There was a small girl, 2 or 3, who had been bitten by a Doberman pinscher. The woman with the Doberman pinscher was leading the dog back to her car, perhaps trying to leave. She wasn't leaving. I went back to where the girl was being treated for bleeding by her parents. Some time later, we called 911 and got an ambulance. If that account sounds muddled, it was: I can't remember what order some of those events happened in. The height of my first aid training was that I managed to get the first aid kit and bring it to where the girl had been mauled, but I remember being very afraid of actually trying to clean the wounds. As far as emergency situations go, this was not even that dire: by the time I was there, the immediate danger was past (the dog had been removed) and the wound was ugly but not life-threatening.

I didn't panic. I did what I had to do. But it was a blur of a situation. If the situation had been more dangerous or complicated, there is a good chance I could have fucked something up.

One of the basics of emergency situations that I can state is that you don't get to choose when they come about. You don't get to choose the circumstances or your own state of mind. This is even more true of situations where someone is being actively violent, because they will probably choose to attack you at your most fatigued and weakest.

I am not saying that people can't learn skills that will help them in an emergency situation. Whether first aid or self-defense, even a small amount of skills can make a difference between life and death. But what people should prepare themselves for is the fact that they won't be in control. Outside of a movie, you will not calmly walk through a car crash and a rifle blast and then bluff someone with an empty gun, without showing signs of nervousness. You will be, on the contrary, scared shitless (although hopefully not literally, but yes, prepare for that as well). Preparing for the idea of being out of control, of being in a situation that is moving too fast and where there is no perfect answer, is in itself a survival skill. This might not be the case if you are a professional paramedic, fire fighter or police officer, and deal with these types of situations daily. But even amongst those professions, truly violent and dangerous situations are not terribly common.

Dealing with an emergency situation is about survival, not about being in control. In an emergency situation, you will forget things you should know. You will flail. You will pay attention to some details, and forget others. You will react emotionally. You might cry or vomit. You might become hyper-aware and unemotional. Your sense of time might slow down, or it might speed up. You might become very angry and yell at someone over something trivial. You might think an emergency has passed, when it is still going on. You might think that it is still going on, after it is over. If doing first aid, you might notice a small but intense injury while being unaware of a larger problem (someone may have cut their head after having a cardiovascular-event induced fall, you might treat the bleeding and be unaware that they are having a heart attack). All of these things and more can happen, and if you remember that they will happen, you improve your chances of survival.

I have had many of these thoughts for a while, but I do admit that some of responses to the Sandy Hook shooting have encouraged me to finally write this down. If we did arm teachers, or even have armed police, I don't think it is very likely that they would stop a shooting before it started. The idea that a second grade teacher is going to be in the middle of teaching how to make a cursive g, when they hear gunfire, and quickly and calmly get out, load and ready their pistol, and then find cover, aim, and kill an armed gunman who is in the middle of firing a rifle, seems to be a sign that someone is watching too many movies.