Vester Lee Flanagan stalked and murdered two of his former colleagues: Alison Parker, 24 years old, and Adam Ward, 27. He walked up and shot them both to death on a self-shot video, posted the video on social media, and committed suicide not long after. This entire crime is an unmitigated horror.
But, as I always say, it would be worse if we didn’t learn anything from it.
I’ve written about personal defense several times before, but there’s one element of it that I haven’t touched upon, mostly because it’s not typically relevant to the average person: if someone really wants to kill you, he eventually will. You can be aware, avoidant, trained, alert, and strong, but if you’ve made the kind of enemy that really does just want to kill you and carries out a plan to do so, you’re most likely going to die unless you’re very fortunate during critical moments of his assault.
“Situational awareness” is a buzzword we throw around that describes being aware of your surroundings, especially in a public space. The “situational” modifier is unnecessary, as anything can be described as a situation, but to sound more tactical we like to add those sorts of adjectives. Situational awareness includes the act of looking around to see if someone with obvious malicious intent is nearby. Muggers don’t teleport in to attack you. If you’ve ever been attacked by surprise, it’s probably because you weren’t aware of your surroundings. Muggers rely on the fact that most people don’t pay attention to what’s around them. They profile potential victims by seeing if they’re alert and looking around or not.
Would being situationally aware have saved Parker and Ward? I doubt it. From the video he shot, it’s clear that they weren’t paying any attention to him during his approach. His dark clothing and the way he crept up reminded me of the video of an assassination attempt on Imelda Marcos. It’s not bloody or visceral, so take a look at it here. Note that everyone else in the crowd going up to talk to Marcos wore white, seemed to be smiling. And then the assassin walks up: dressed in black, scowling, reaching into his sleeve. Nobody noticed this guy until he started trying to hack her up, including her bodyguards. Why not? Because they weren’t practicing situational awareness.
Parker and Ward were not in any position to defend themselves: both were deeply engrossed in a task, both were entirely unaware that a deeply disturbed man had fixated on them. It’s also likely that nothing in their lives had ever prepared them for this attack. They were nice people like you and me. Who expects to be shot to death doing a 7:00 AM interview in Moneta, Virginia?
I don’t think anything could have saved those people from Vester Lee Flanagan. He stalked them, chose a moment that was least advantageous for them, and struck. You can practice awareness, avoidance, de-escalation techniques, and physical combat all day every day, but if someone’s going to go through the same trouble that Flanagan did to stalk and kill you, you’re screwed.
Don’t leave the house mad. Tell your loved ones that you love them.
And be aware, just in case.