The Enemies of Situational Awareness

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Written by Scott Stewart, Vice President of Intelligence at TorchStone Global

As those of you who have been read Shelley’s book understand, situational awareness is simply paying attention to what is happening in the environment around you in an effort to identify and avoid potential threats and dangerous situations. As such, situational awareness is really more of a mindset than it is a highly refined skill. It is not some secret, sophisticated art that only elite government-trained people can practice; but rather a skill that anyone can practice if they have the proper focus, will, and discipline.

Now, while anyone can practice situational awareness, there are several pitfalls that prevent people from doing so. Perhaps the first obstacle to situational awareness is ignorance. This can be ignorance of how to practice situational awareness, or even that it is necessary to do so. If you’ve read Shelley’s book or her newsletter, you no longer have ignorance as an excuse, so let’s examine some of the other factors in a bit more detail.


Perhaps the most pernicious enemy of situational awareness is denial. Sometimes, denial can be a form of thoughtlessness or a simple refusal to face the mere possibility that a threat can exist. However, denial can also take the form of an intellectual equation, in which we allow ourselves to make an incorrect assessment based on faulty assumptions.

Over my long career, I have talked to many people who were victimized due to denial. Perhaps one of the most memorable was an American energy executive who was kidnapped in Manila in 1992. After a bloody police rescue operation resulted in freeing him from a brutal two-month captivity, I had the chance to debrief him about the ordeal. During the debriefing, I learned that the day before he was abducted, the same burgundy Mitsubishi Pajaro his kidnappers used to abduct him had attempted to cut his car off in traffic at the same exact place and time, but that his driver was able to steer around the assailant’s vehicle and continue to the office. I asked him why he didn’t take any additional security measures to protect himself after the first failed attempt, and he replied that he did not do anything because he didn’t perceive that it was a kidnapping attempt. He didn’t consider himself to be an attractive target and he didn’t think the time and place were appropriate for a kidnapping attempt.

This executive’s denial cost him dearly, so let’s look more closely at some of the different types of denial.

It Can’t Happen to Me

Like in the Manila example above, this form of denial entails denying the possibility that you could be targeted for some type of harm. For example, many people don’t consider themselves wealthy enough to be targeted by kidnappers or robbers, but some kidnapping gangs may consider a few thousand dollars a good take. You may not consider yourself wealthy, but for many street criminals a purse, smartphone, gold chain, or pair of expensive sunglasses is considered worth the effort for a snatch and grab or mugging. Similarly, a woman executive sitting alone at a bar on a business trip who is approached by an attractive younger man may wrongly consider herself to be not important enough to be targeted by a honey trap, or conversely, consider herself so attractive that the man’s advances must be genuine.

As we’ve seen from the wide range of targets in recent terrorist and active shooter attacks, your social status, ethnicity, or religion may not matter to an assailant. Indeed, they might not even think about you as an individual at all. Instead, all you represent is an additional tally in the final body count. The same principle applies to sexual assaults, which are often more about power and control than what the victim looks like or what she is wearing.

The truth is, we are all potential targets for some sort of bad actor; so yes, it CAN happen to you.

It Can’t Happen Here

Because of our past experiences of being safe in certain locations, we tend to take our security for granted when we are at one of them. Such “comfort zones” can include our homes, offices, schools, or places of worship. Since we consider these places as safe, we tend to dismiss the signals of potential danger when our senses bring them to our attention. There have been several incidents in recent years in which this type of location-based denial has occurred. Victims have heard the sound of gunfire but dismissed the sounds as something else because their mental filters told them “those can’t be shots.” Yet tragically, they really were shots, and this locational denial has resulted in people hesitating to respond appropriately, resulting in them being killed or wounded.

In the larger picture, there is also the mistaken perception that bad things only happen in other parts of the world and not in “safer” places like the United States, Europe, or New Zealand. This not only applies to terrorism, but also to other crimes and threats. For example, one may harbor a doubt that a new romantic partner is genuine, but then dismiss that doubt because of the mistaken belief that honey traps only happen in Beijing or Moscow, or that muggings or sexual assaults only happen in the “bad” parts of town.

Recent experience is, sadly enough, slowly but surely modifying our blind trust in our security in “safer” places. When our senses alert us to potential danger, we need to ask ourselves, “Why NOT here?”

It Can’t Happen Now

“Not now” is a close cousin of “not here.” This is the denial that an incident can take place on a certain date or at a particular time of day. While it is true that many criminals prefer to work under cover of darkness, broad daylight does not offer total protection. In fact, many kidnappings and assassinations happen in daylight during the morning home-to-work commute. As illustrated by the Manila incident I mentioned earlier, in an intentional attack such as a kidnapping, the assailants will know where you’ll be and when you’ll be there. This is also very applicable in stalking or domestic violence cases, where the attacker may not know where you are living or staying but may know where you work or go to school.

Because of this, it is important to refuse the urge to believe “this can’t happen now.”

It Can’t Be Him

Discriminatory — or non-discriminatory — behavior can also be a form of denial. This happens when a victim dismisses the threat a person or group of people may pose because the victim is concerned with making an inaccurate judgment based on a potential attacker’s identity – be it race, culture, economic status, ethnicity, or religion. This concern about not wanting to appear to be prejudiced or fear of offending someone can cause us to disregard warning signals causing us to wrongly conclude: “Not him.”

To be clear, I do not condone prejudice or profiling, and I certainly don’t advocate for it as a security technique. However, all individuals must be assessed based on their actions and demeanor, not their identity, and we can’t allow a person’s identity or attractiveness to lead us to a false assessment. Sometimes reality does indeed reflect a stereotype, and sometimes people with identities we deem non-threatening are. A great historical example of this is serial killer Ted Bundy, who used charm, good looks, and even feigned injuries to fool his unsuspecting victims.

It is important to not deny that someone might be an attacker based solely on who they are or how they look — judge them by their behavior and the signs and signals they send.

Distraction: Tuning Yourself Out

Distraction is often closely linked to denial. We’re far more likely to tune out and allow ourselves to become distracted if we have a “not me, not here, not now” mindset.

Anyone who takes a subway or bus to work daily knows how easy it is to spot people so engrossed in their book, newspaper, or screen that they have no idea what is happening around them. It is also becoming even more common to see people totally engrossed in their screens on the street. This type of distraction makes it difficult to observe hostile demeanors and other indicators of the attack cycle progressing as a threat emerges. These signs can sometimes be subtle, but even in cases where they are blatant, you simply can’t see them if your eyes are intently focused on something else.

Your sense of hearing can help you identify threats you can’t see — threats behind you or concealed by dark or physical obstructions. This is exemplified in people who run or walk with headphones on and can’t hear threats approaching from behind. For instance, in October 2016 Mexican federal judge Vicente Antonio Bermudez Zacarias was assassinated while jogging with his headphones on. This allowed a gunman to run up from behind and shoot him in the back of the head at point-blank range.

I’ve also noted that in some nightclub shootings, such as at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, survivors have reported that loud music made it difficult for them to hear gunfire — and when they recognized it for what it was, the music then made it difficult to determine where the shots were coming from.

And these days visual and aural distractions often go hand in hand. We see people everywhere — in the park, on the street, on mass transit — who are both visually and aurally consumed in a game, movie, or TV show on their mobile device. There are times and places where it is appropriate to allow yourself to tune out in this way; out in public is not one of them.

Practicing appropriate situational awareness doesn’t mean you can’t read a paper on the subway, go to a club, check your email in a park or listen to music on a run. But there are certain times, places, and situations where those things are inadvisable.

Alcohol consumption may also impair one’s senses, judgment, and ability to physically respond to a threat. Many criminals intentionally target people who have become impaired by alcohol consumption.

I’m not saying don’t have a glass of wine with dinner or send a text to a friend on your phone. However, when you are doing these things in public, you should do them in a measured and more cautious manner than you would if you were safely locked inside your home. So, go ahead and read your email on the subway — but pause occasionally and use your eyes to scan the people in the car, especially after a stop when new passengers enter. Does someone that boarded display demeanor indicating that they deserve additional observation? If so, don’t return to your reading until you’re certain that person isn’t a threat. If, after more observation, the person does appear to be a threat, you can take action to avoid that person rather than getting caught off guard.

By all means, enjoy life when you are out in public, just don’t allow your mind to become so distracted that you miss signs of a potentially dangerous situation. Instead, practice an appropriate degree of situational awareness.

About Scott Stewart, Vice President of Intelligence at TorchStone Global

Scott Stewart is a seasoned protective intelligence practitioner with 35 years of analytical, investigative, and security experience. Before joining the executive ranks of TorchStone Global, Mr. Stewart led global analysis of terrorism and security topics at Stratfor from 2004 to 2020. Prior to his time at Stratfor, Mr. Stewart was the protective intelligence coordinator for Dell and served as a member of Michael Dell’s executive protection team.

Mr. Stewart also spent ten years as a special agent with the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), where he was involved in a large number of high-profile terrorism and protective intelligence investigations. He was the lead DSS investigator assigned to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the follow-up New York City bomb plot. He also led a team that assisted the Argentine investigation of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, among other cases. Mr. Stewart also served as the deputy regional security officer in Guatemala City and was responsible for embassy and diplomatic security at that post as well as in Belize City.

Over the years, Mr. Stewart’s analysis has been widely reprinted by other outlets and he has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Security Management Magazine, and Security Magazine, among others. Stewart is a popular speaker on security topics and is also frequently interviewed by journalists from leading news outlets to include the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, NPR, Reuters, the Associated Press, Time Magazine, and USA Today. Mr. Stewart was one of the DSS Special Agents profiled in the book “Relentless Pursuit: The DSS and the Manhunt for the Al-Qaeda Terrorists” by Samuel M Katz.

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