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An Interview with a Lethal Man: Peter and Helen Evans interview Massad Ayoob

Peter and Helen Evans

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Editors note: Reflections on violence by a man commissioned to confront it.

Massad Ayoob is arguably one of the most lethal men around, in fact he even trains others in the use of deadly force. Many people cannot distinguish the difference between 'dangerous' and 'lethal.' When they hear that someone is an expert in handgun combat, urban rifle, knife/counter-knife, close-quarters battle and stressfire shotgun, they automatically think of someone to be feared. However, after reading the following we believe you'll recognize a good guy who balances lethal force and compassion. Only the bad guys need fear him.

Mr. Ayoob has had stories about him and interviews in various publications and news shows such as the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, New York Post, ABC's "Turning Point", National Enquirer, PBS "Frontline", ABC's "20/20" and the BBC News Magazine and we are privileged to interview him here.

Peter and Helen: In your book, "The Truth About Self Protection," you say we have the right to protect ourselves. How do you respond to those who say it only promotes the "cycle of violence"?

Massad: I refer them to Biology 101. When the predator chases down, destroys, and consumes its prey without intervention, the cycle of its violence continues. When the given predator is taken out of circulation, then by definition, its cycle of violence is ended for the duration. The criminal is the actor, his prey merely the reactor, and the cycle is dependent on the action of the predator.

Peter and Helen: You also say, "sympathizing with a criminal in the prison visiting room is like sympathizing with the timber wolf caged inside its bars at the Bronx Zoo. It's safe enough there, but you don't want to meet either of them in their natural habitat ... These predatory people are not like you. They aren't people like you. They are a different breed." How do you respond to those who say we should just reason with them, or try to rehabilitate them? Or that we should not be threatening to them, as in dis-arming security and prison guards?

When the predator chases down, destroys, and consumes its prey without intervention, the cycle of its violence continues. When the given predator is taken out of circulation, then by definition, its cycle of violence is ended for the duration.

Massad: You can only reason with the reasonable.

You do not reason with your food; you eat it. A violent attacker can be expected to respond the same way.

Your violent criminal tends to be a sociopath or even occasionally a psychopath. You can only reason with such an entity by giving it a better deal. Throwing the baby from the sleigh is one approach to bargaining with the predator, but as the Europeans discovered along about World War II, it's a temporary and unsatisfactory solution. The way to reason with a predator is to make it aware that it can live in a cage, or it can die, but it can no longer prey upon us.

Unarmed prison guards survive because the structure of the prison environment, and the certainty of retribution for violence committed upon the corrections officer, acts (most of the time) as a deterrent to attack. The citizen abroad in the land and going about his business has no such protection from human predators, because the public environment lacks the element of control that pervades the penal environment.

Peter and Helen: You've also said in your book, "I no longer believe that there is no such thing as a bad boy. I changed my mind after I met and interacted with and interviewed, human beings who were evil. There's no other word for it -- evil. I never lost my sense of compassion for them or for their loss of human dignity -- I never arrested a person I didn't feel sorry for -- but that compassion has been tempered with control. "I'm sorry for you and the things you felt you had to do, but you won't be allowed to do those things to me or anyone under the mantle of my protection, and that's why my gun is pointed at you, and that's why you will be docile as we put these handcuffs on you." We also wanted our readers to see this side of you, just in case they don't follow our recommendation to read your book. It's clear you've examined your soul about the use of deadly force. Where did you find the compassion for someone who harms others?

Massad: I have never arrested a criminal, or interviewed a convict in prison, for whom I could not feel sorry in at least some small way. Broken homes. Molestation in childhood. Poverty. Discrimination. Something twisted in their brain. Something that kept them from being a normal human being.

The key is not allowing your compassion to seduce you into sacrificing yourself or a victim you have the power to protect, in the name of your sympathy for the long-lost child who is now a dangerous adult criminal. Watch the old Disney movie "Old Yeller" as an adult with adult eyes. In the end, when the dog has become rabid, the boy does the right thing by shooting him. The situation has reached the point where further compassion would endanger the innocent.

Peter and Helen: You said you ran with criminals as a kid, but broke out of the mold. How did you break out of the mold?

Massad: In my teens, I ran with a rough crowd, what the other high schoolers called "hoods." Not evil kids, but wild kids, and occasionally laws were broken. None of them harmed innocent human victims. But it was getting out of control. It reached the point in my senior year when out of perhaps twenty in a loose-knit clique, there were only two of us who had not been arrested. I could see what the arrests did to the families, and to the kids. Confidentiality laws regarding juveniles in the criminal justice system notwithstanding, the gossip in a small community marks a kid and puts a brand on his head. Soon, the bad kids are the only ones who'll hang out with him. Criminality then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That other kid and I saw the handwriting on the wall. We knew what it would do to our parents if we got arrest records, and more for that reason than anything else, we separated from the group. He went on to become an executive in a Fortune 500 company, and I went where I went. Neither of us would have been able to do those things with our lives if we hadn't changed our lives and lifestyles when we did.

Among the others, not one achieved what he should have with the rest of his life. Some were successful, but not as successful as they would have been without criminal records. One committed suicide in his late teens. Several struggled with alcohol and drugs.

The answer is not something the Government can give. In the same sense that this society has made drunk driving and cigarette smoking unacceptable as social norms, kids need to be reminded that there are people counting on them to be there the next day, the next year, the next decade. Kids think about their futures more than adults remember or realize. In 30 years of carrying a badge, I've been able to help some young people turn their lives around. It's one of the most satisfying parts of the job. But the decision to change, to do the right thing, ultimately comes from within.

In his studies of men under fire, General S.L.A. Marshall noted that the soldier bonded to his peer group would fight valiantly on their behalf when he might have given up if he was alone on the battlefield. I remind my students that those who fight to come back to their loved ones will fight harder and more successfully than those whose only motivation is themselves. I've taken the same approach to this particular issue, and it seems to be equally successful.

Peter and Helen: Do you see a significant difference between a "terrorist" and a "criminal"? Do we protect ourselves from them differently?

Massad: Yes and yes. The difference is in the motivation. The one is often disguised as the other.

You can reason with a criminal -- particularly a professional criminal, who is the ultimate pragmatist. The implicit statement when a criminal is taken at gunpoint is, "Cease your assaultive behavior or die." This generally works. It is why, police and armed citizen alike, the overwhelming majority of incidents where good people take bad people at gunpoint end in surrender or flight of the subject, as opposed to bloodshed on either side.

This does not work for the religiously as opposed to politically motivated terrorist. With the politically motivated, there is still something to reason with: you are offering him a chance to live to enjoy his martyrdom in the spotlight, and to perhaps later be traded for a prisoner or hostage from the other side. The religious fanatic who practices terrorism cannot be reasoned with, because there is nothing you can threaten him with, and no alternative you can offer him that is more palatable than his genuine belief that if he dies fighting you, he will be greatly rewarded in afterlife. Only swift and extreme force can stop him.

Peter and Helen: You write about Threat Management and that the average citizen might not like to confront the idea of crime in their lives. You liken it to the trade-off between having cancer or having the treatment. When we read your book we found ourselves getting resentful of the "bad guy" because we have to change our lives because of his anti-social actions. Why do you think people do not want to acknowledge that 'it's dangerous out there'?

Massad: It is the nature of the civilized human in a comfort-centered society and environment to avoid discomfort. In a word, the answer is 'denial'. The morbidly obese patient who refuses to diet or exercise is in denial. The individual who refuses to wear a seat belt or learn rudimentary first aid is in denial. Similarly, the person who pretends that he can't possibly be a victim of violent crime is in denial.

Peter and Helen: Being both a Captain on a Police Force and of Arabic descent, what do you think of profiling?

Massad: I think profiling is one of those terms like "street justice" that can be misunderstood because the thing itself can be abused.

When a cop catches a kid vandalizing property and instead of running him through the criminal justice machine and giving him a record, he makes him apologize to the victim and repair the vandalism, that's street justice at its traditional best. When "street justice" is administered with the non-illuminating end of a large black flashlight, it's no "justice" at all.

Similarly, if "profiling" is taken to mean stopping a motorist because he is an African-American in a Caucasian neighborhood, it's wrong. Victims call it "DWB": "Driving While Black" or "Driving While Brown." That sort of profiling is, obviously, unacceptable.

At the same time, if the profile of committed Al-Qaeda members is Arabic, with little or accented English, late teens to mid-forties, then it is understandable that good people who unfortunately fit this profile come in for additional scrutiny, but the scrutiny is logical and reasonable given the prevailing circumstances. In my case, as a frequent flyer with an Arabic name who has to declare firearms at airport check-in counters, life has become more interesting the last few years, but I shrug it off because I understand where it comes from.

Let's say that you are driving a white Audi with Virginia plates through the community I serve, and an hour ago there has been a vicious murder perpetrated by a suspect driving a white Audi with Virginia plates. You can expect that I, or one of my brother or sister officers, will pull you over. Some would call it profiling, but under the circumstances, we would call it common sense and fulfillment of duty.

Short Bio of Massad Ayoob:

Chair of the Firearms Committee, American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, 1987-present. Captain and police prosecutor with a small municipal police department in Northern New England. Director, Lethal Force Institute, 1981-present. Current NH State Champion and New England Regional Champion, IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Assn.), Stock Service Revolver category. Information on Massad Ayoob's books and videos, and the training classes he runs around the country, are available at "http://www.ayoob.com"

Peter and Helen Evans, http://www.peterandhelenevans.com. This husband and wife team -- freelance writers and speakers -- teach a philosophical approach to conservatism, and are scheduled speakers at Blogging Man. They are also real estate agents in the Washington, D.C., area.

Read the entire article on the Peter and Helen Evans website (new window will open).

Posted: 17-Aug-06



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