Gershon Ben Keren's Blog

Self Defense & Personal Safety Blog

Gershon Ben Keren started writing his blog in 2012, updating it weekly (and sometimes more frequently depending on events in the news, questions raised in classes, points brought up in seminars etc). Since then he has written 312 articles about personal safety, self-defense. These have included articles on sexual assault, home security, street robberies, improvised weapons, school and adult bullying, situational awareness, CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) etc. There are few areas of aggression, violence and personal safety, that he hasn't covered or touched upon.

The last four blog articles, that have been published, are displayed below. If you would like to visit the main blog site to read other articles, you can click on any of the months listed in the right hand side bar, or click here to go to

Codes And Jargon

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 24th Apr)

When Chesley Sullenberger radioed a Mayday call, that he’d lost power in both the engines of US Airways Flight 1549, he made one mistake, he got his call-sign wrong; he said “Cactus 1539”, instead of “Cactus 1549” – remarkably, everything else he and his co-pilot said/did were on the money, and 4 minutes later, he landed the plane in the Hudson River, with the loss of no lives. It was a minor, inconsequential error, however it demonstrates that trying to recall names, codes, and similar under stress and duress, is not something we do naturally or easily. Depending on the code/term, we may have to go through a process of translation, as we search for its meaning, or even refer to, or look it up in a manual or glossary. 

Institutions will often have security codes that refer to different types of threats and dangers e.g. a hospital might use a certain security code, to refer to a potentially violent patient who is unaccounted for, and another one for when there is an active shooter in the building, etc. In the case of the missing patient, using a code, is a good way of informing those who know what the translation of the code is, whilst not causing potential alarm and panic in those who don’t. However, when it comes to informing everyone about the presence of an active shooter/killer, the use of a code/term, means that only those who are able to translate the code, will be aware of the danger. There is also the risk, that people translate the code incorrectly, and believe that they are safe and don’t have to act, when the opposite is true. Codes and terminology are good ways to communicate information to a select audience, however they are terrible ways to inform the general population of something; in such cases, using ordinary, descriptive language is the best e.g. “there is an active shooter in the building…” as opposed to, “it’s a code 43”, or, “it’s a code blue”, etc.

Martial Artists like terminology – it’s our language. It allows us to talk to each other, and only have those who are also martial artists understand what we are saying. When I used to do a lot of personal training, I felt it was essential for my clients to know the correct anatomical terms for their body parts; I believed that part of my job was to educate them, so that they became better aware of their own body. In retrospect, it made no difference to them if they were doing an exercise that strengthened the muscles of the back of their arm, or one that strengthened their Triceps muscle(s) – the choice of language used, didn’t change the result. However, if I wanted to strengthen a particular part of the Triceps, it may be useful to explain that the Triceps Muscle, is in fact a three-headed muscle, where it is possible to isolate and target each “head” individually etc. In the initial stages of training the terminology becomes a barrier for communication, however later on it can – in certain cases – be useful. Terminology becomes useful, when it contains descriptive language that can aid memory, and communicate ideas e.g. “Tri” meaning three, etc.

This is something that Jigaro Kano, the founder/creator of Judo understood very well; the description of each throws is contained in its name, and references the action that needs to be performed. O-Soto-Gari, translated is Major (O), Outer (Soto), Reap (Gari) i.e. it is a large reaping action performed on the outside of an assailant’s leg. The terminology is direct and simple, and needs little translation, to understand which technique/throw it’s referring to. If, however it was referred to as Throw No. 5, which is where it is positioned in the Gokyo – the five throwing sets, which form the basis of Judo – you would need to perform some form of translation, which might involve counting off the throws from the beginning, before you understood which particular throw was being referenced. Jigaro Kano was a professor of education, and understood very well, how we learn and remember things. Numbering systems might work well, if you’re referring to three or four things, but beyond five, our ability to recall accurately and quickly what the numbers refer to is extremely limited. 

When creating/developing frameworks for understanding violence, I have found that the maximum number of items that can be easily recalled is around five, and if it can be broken down into fewer parts even better – and those parts need to be labelled with descriptive titles, that easily make sense. I have spent 20-plus years, teaching corporate and professional clients personal safety and self-protection i.e. how to predict, prevent, identify and avoid violence. In some cases, I have only a 60-minute session, to teach them the predictive skills that they will use to keep themselves safe – sometimes in potentially hostile environments. The language I have to use is everyday descriptive language e.g. I don’t talk about debussing, I talk about getting out of a vehicle, etc. These individuals don’t need to learn military/security terminology; they simply don’t have the time to learn another language and it serves them no purpose. 

In communicating self-protection concepts and principles, and teaching techniques, we should concentrate on using straight-forward descriptive terms, that can easily be recalled and don’t require us to have to make translations. It is not necessary to give names to all that we do, and the less terminology we employ the better. The language we use, should replicate and reflect the situations we are training to deal with, and describe our responses to them. A lack of jargon will make what we do far more accessible to those we aim to teach.

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Multi-Phase & Multi-Dimensional Training

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 17th Apr)

It is all too easy to get technique-focused in our training, especially if we are working to, or following a syllabus that has a list of techniques we need to learn and be proficient at for a particular level or belt e.g. we need to know how to escape a rear strangle, a side-headlock, a guillotine, etc. The danger with this, is that we become really good at dealing with these individual attacks and problems, but lack the context in which they occur; nobody just puts a guillotine on you, there must be a “phase” in the fight that precedes it where they manage to get control of your head, either because you tangle up together in a clinch, or you slip/trip forward, lowering your head for them to get control of etc. Going a step further, there must be a phase/stage that precedes the clinch, and so on. There’s a story to any attack, and that needs to get told in our training. This is where Multi-Phase and Multi-Dimensional training becomes important.

When you first learn a technique, it is important to practice it as a technique i.e. learn how to perform it properly, be able to perform it dynamically, and against a resisting/reactive attacker, etc. But it’s important not to stop there. At this point, we are simply good at performing this particular technique - in fact, we may even be good at performing it under stress and duress - but that doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to perform it successfully in a real-life confrontation. We may have both the physical and emotional skills/attributes to get it to work, but we haven’t trained it in any type of context e.g. we haven’t looked at the types of attacks, situations, etc., that precede it, and the responses an assailant may make to it; we haven’t placed it in the story, and without doing this, we may not recognize such an attack in a real-life conflict.

This is something that many people who haven’t any experience of violence often don’t realize. In the middle of a confrontation, it can be really difficult to identify what it is that is actually happening to you, and what the appropriate solution is. In the moment, you may focus on one detail of what is happening to you, and base your response on this, rather than correctly identifying the actual threat/danger. I once witnessed a knife attack, where the person being attacked managed to get two hands on to the attacker’s arm, stiffen their own arms, and hold the knife at bay. In this case, the attacker was the one who wasn’t able to make sense of what was happening, and began pulling and pushing his arm, trying to rip it free, and never once thought about changing/passing the knife to his other, free hand – this struggle lasted about 10-15 seconds, before two doormen were able to get to the attacker and subdue him. With his focus solely on the knife, he wasn’t able to understand what was actually happening, and what his options were. I see a similar phenomena in my school when teaching groundwork skills. I will demonstrate the difficulty of trying to perform an arm-lock on somebody, when you are in their guard, as they can normally prevent you by holding you back, by straightening their body and keeping you trapped between their legs, however when it comes to rolling and being “competitive”, I’ll see people try and dive for an arm when they are in their partner’s guard i.e. they don’t understand where the arm-bar is positioned in the story e.g. it comes after they have escaped guard etc. When we become so focused on one detail, we can forget and lose context.

Surviving a violent encounter is often done incrementally, rather than all at once; you do one thing that puts you in a better position but doesn’t completely solve your situation, and then you do another thing which improves on this, and another, and another, etc. This is especially true if you are caught by surprise, and find yourself a long way behind on the curve. Attacks, such as guillotine chokes and side-headlocks, often are started from a clinch, or a scramble - they are rarely isolated attacks, and in both your attacker has to bring your head down in some way. In our training, we want to become familiar with the feeling of having our head brought down, and the positions we may find ourselves in, that allow this to happen. When we train our defenses/techniques from here, we will recognize and identify the threat much sooner than if we simply train these techniques from the perspective and position of having been caught in them – we will also start to understand those things that we can do to prevent such attacks from being fully applied e.g. it is much easier to deal with a guillotine attack as it’s being made, rather than after it has been applied.

One way to do this is to chain techniques together in an escalating/progressive manner e.g. teach a defense against a wrist grab, a push, or a swinging right, where you end up in a clinch, and from the clinch the guillotine defense, and escape - and then put them all together. At any stage in the chain, you can have a successful outcome e.g. the attacker makes a wrist grab, you escape/deal with it, and they follow up with a push, which you successfully deal with and are able to end the confrontation there. Sometimes, the situation doesn’t end with the push, and the attacker keeps coming, making a swinging right, from which you end the confrontation, by blocking and launching into combatives, etc. Sometimes it ends in the clinch, sometimes it runs right through into the guillotine, etc. In this manner, you are creating stories that have context. You can start the story much earlier, by creating a story about why the person grabbed your wrist in the first place e.g. was it a situation which you tried to deescalate but were unsuccessful, was it part of an abduction attempt, or did it involve somebody who didn’t want you to leave, etc? By doing this, you can introduce the self-protection/personal-safety aspect of your training, and teach people how to identify, predict, and avoid violence.

We must also introduce other dimensions into the training of techniques e.g. a knife can be pulled in the midst of a fight, not just at the beginning, and we should train for this. If we train our grappling dimension in isolation to our knife defenses, and vice versa, we are training our techniques in distinct and separate channels. Few fights start off on the ground, but groundwork is commonly taught in isolation of everything else, and because of this, many people don’t understand why, how, and when fights go to the ground.  We can train multiple-dimensions, within Multi-Phase training e.g. in our chain, once the clinch stage is reached, our training partner can either pull a knife, or apply a guillotine choke. In this way, we start to open up a closed drill, into something that is more likely to reflect what a real-life confrontation looks like.

Although our goal as practitioners is to end every situation as quickly as we can, we must recognize that this is not always possible, and that a fight can move through many phases, which can involve other dimensions of our training; for example, grappling can involve striking and weapons, etc. It is important to train our threat recognition abilities, so that we can quickly identify attacks, and what is actually occurring in our situation, rather than responding at the last moment. Understanding the context and story of violent assaults through this type of training allows us to do this.

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Lone Wolf Terrorism & ISIS

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 10th Apr)

n July 2016, I wrote about the Nice lorry attack, where a “lone wolf” terrorist drove a 19-tonne cargo truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 and injuring 434 more. Two days ago, a similar attack occurred in Stockholm, Sweden, killing 4 and injuring 15. A little over two weeks before this, a terrorist drove a car into a crowd on Westminster Bridge in London, killing 4 and injuring 49, before stabbing/killing a police officer. None of the perpetrators – at the time of writing this - had any direct links to a terrorist or political organization, but all three mentioned/demonstrated sympathies to ISIS – and ISIS made claims that both the London and Nice attacks were committed by its “Soldiers” (though in both cases there is no evidence of any formal ties, and the lack of biographical evidence that ISIS was unable to provide about both attackers suggests that there was no direct contact between both parties). Despite this, it would be wrong to think of these individuals as true “lone wolves” who acted entirely independently, and without first communicating with others.

In both the London and Stockholm attacks, the suspect was known to the security and intelligence services, who had either interviewed or investigated them before. In the case of the London terror attack, the perpetrator was 52, and didn’t fit the demographic of most terrorists, who are largely under 30 – terrorism tends to be a young man’s game. The fact that these individuals were known to the authorities (Khalid Masood – the Westminster Bridge killer - was investigated by MI6 in 2010, for “Violent Extremism”), suggests that they had some “links” with others that brought them to the attention of the security services, or had interacted in some way with those who were known to be involved in extremist activities – not really “lone wolves” at all. It is highly unlikely that somebody else hadn’t been informed, or somehow involved in their plans. Those who plan mass killings, whether they are terror-inspired acts, or workplace/school shootings, have a tendency to tell others about their plans; the US Secret Service found that in 81% of school shootings, the shooter told others about their plans – and more often than not, those told discounted or disbelieved that the killers had either the intent or the capability to carry out their plan.

ISIS, through the use of social media, is able to both inspire - and in some cases, enable - those who commit acts of terror in their name. They are not restricted to having to direct and organize each act, and because of this, can have a wider reach and influence e.g. they didn’t have to provide the car that Khalid Masood used to drive into the crowds on Westminster Bridge, they merely had to inspire him to do so, etc. In the case of the Stockholm terrorist, there may have been a greater degree of collusion, as it appears that there was some form of explosive device in the truck that he drove – it could be that a member of ISIS enabled him in some way by building the device for him, or helped him in its design and creation. This would not be unusual for the group which has been involved before in what is termed, “Remote Control” terrorism i.e. they have provided guns and ammunition to those they have inspired to plan acts of terrorism e.g. Hyderabad, India. Rarely are those who we think of as lone wolves, truly without some form of assistance or guidance. In 2015, Elton Simpson drove to a parking lot where a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest was taking place, and opened fire on those gathered. Initially, he was thought to be a lone wolf, however an examination of his social media accounts showed that he had contact with members of ISIS, and was not working completely alone (even though ISIS hadn’t appeared to provide any logistical help/assistance) – this was the first attack on US soil that the group claimed responsibility for.

This “method” of terrorism is very different to that practiced by Al Qaeda, a group which has tended to direct all operations and be actively involved in them; this limited the number and frequency of attacks, but allowed them to commit more involved, complex and coordinated attacks such as those carried out on 9/11, when two planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, with a third plane planned to crash into the Pentagon. In the days after 9/11, the only people who really feared for their safety – in regards to terrorism - were those who worked in skyscrapers, and other significant/tall buildings. Once it was understood the amount of work and preparation that went into these attacks, it became obvious that AQ had spent most of its resources, and that there were no subsequent and/or similar attacks lined up i.e. there would be no more planes flown into buildings, etc. Such large-scale terrorist attacks, exhaust the resources of those individuals and organizations who plan them – the FBI correctly reasoned that after the Oklahoma City Bombing, whoever planned and orchestrated it (Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols), didn’t have the capability to commit another similar act of terrorism without a great deal of time. However, when you have a network of individuals inspired and enabled to conduct less sophisticated and complicated acts, such as driving a car or truck into a crowd of individuals, such acts can occur and be repeated within a short period of time of each other e.g. the London attack occurred on 22nd March, and the Stockholm attack on the 7th April. The effect on the population is also greater, in such attacks, as everybody has a reason to fear that there may be another similar one.

I grew up in the 1970’s, during a time when the IRA was responsible for a number of pub bombings on the UK mainland. The IRA understood that the most effective way to have an impact on a population, was not to attack large scale targets, but rather to attack a “way of life”; in doing so, you effect all of the population. By planting bombs in two pubs in 1974, that killed 21 people and injured 182 more, the IRA grabbed the attention of just about everybody – the local pub is the focal point of every community, and there are very few people in the UK who don’t participate in pub culture. The casualty rate was nowhere near that experienced on 9/11, and the results not as “spectacular”, however the impact was much farther reaching, and much more effective; especially when further terror events kept bringing memories back round to the idea, that when relaxing and socializing in a pub (something most individuals did several times a week), you were at risk of being subjected to an act of terror. ISIS has learnt that attacking the population as it goes about its everyday business is more effective at creating terror than targeting large events or very specific targets – if you now start to question your safety every time you walk down a street, because somebody could drive a car into you, you are thinking about that terrorist organization, their aims and goals, the causes of their actions, etc., far more than if you only thought about the risks to your safety when you go to large scale events – which are less frequent.

In the age of the internet and social media, lone wolves no longer exist. The ease of communication, and the sharing of information, that can now be enjoyed means there is no reason for any terrorist to truly be a lone wolf. This doesn’t necessarily mean that identifying those who are planning to commit acts is easy and straightforward, just that nobody now has to work alone, when there are those actively inspiring and enabling others to commit acts of terror. The shift from large, significant targets to everyday ones is going to become more frequent, and we are perhaps at the moment going through a transition, where this will become more common e.g. both attacks happened at historic locations – the Westminster attack happened outside the Houses of Parliament, the actual target of the Stockholm attack looked to be their Parliament Buildings – though they targeted civilians outside, etc. In the future, the locations are probably going to be less important than the aim of effecting people’s everyday lives.

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(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 3rd Apr)

When I first started to do door work, those that I worked with used to impress upon me the importance of witnesses; of making sure that whatever you did, looked and appeared justified and reasonable to those around you i.e. if somebody decided to press charges against you and/or the establishment you were working for, that your actions would look reasonable and not be deemed excessive. However, if you ever talk to somebody who witnesses an incident you are involved in, you may be surprised at what they do and don’t remember, along with their version of events – which may differ wildly to yours. Those in law enforcement who have taken witness statements, will tell you that even somebody who seems very sure they could identify a person in a line up, or says that they can remember events clearly, can find that their memory of things falls apart quite quickly when questioned from a variety of different angles and directions (something that lawyers and attorneys are all too aware of). In this article, I want to look at some of the reasons why it is generally not a good idea to solely rely on a witness’s testimony.

Our memories can change over time, and we can add to them and lose certain details and events, as we retell them, either to ourselves or others. Much of the way we remember things is as stories – there’s a good reason that our early ancestors used stories as a way to preserve knowledge; it’s a much better method than simply trying to remember a list of facts. It’s also one of the reasons that creating a scenario/situation in training helps students to better remember techniques and solutions – if you can create an incident, where a person is followed to the ATM, withdraws some cash, and then has a mugger stick a knife in their back, they will remember the defense/technique far better than if you simply introduce it without a context/story (plus they are getting a much better idea of what violence actually looks like, the warning signs that precede an event, decision making under stress/duress, etc.). Stories, are how we learn and remember things.

Our stories, however, aren’t written on a blank canvas, they come influenced by our previous experiences (other stories), and belief systems e.g. if somebody believes or has a perception that Scottish people are aggressive by nature, they may well remember things a Scottish person says as being overly aggressive or threatening, even when it wasn’t the case, in reality.

We are also much better at remembering events, than we are at remembering details. A witness is much more likely to remember you stepping back from your aggressor, than their height/size or what they were wearing, etc. Therefore, it is good when you are dealing with an aggressor to emphasize your actions e.g. if you back away to “invite” an aggressor into your space (one way to make it clear and visible that they are committing an assault), make it a definite step back, rather than something that could be remembered as a shuffle, a weight shift, or similar. You should also remember that your memory of an incident is susceptible to change and alteration – one reason it is a good thing to talk over what happened to a lawyer, before rushing to make a statement (you have the right to remain silent, and you should take it, however “clearly” you think you remember things, and how justified you felt to respond in the way that you did).  

How people remember the length of incidents can be extremely inaccurate. In short incidents (which most violent incidents are), people’s remembrance of how long they lasted can be increased by a factor of 5 e.g. an incident that lasts 1 minute, can be remembered as lasting 5 minutes, etc. Many people are aware of the phenomena of time slowing down when they are involved in a stressful incident (Tachypsychia), and there are many reasons given for this. Studies have shown that this effect doesn’t occur in the moment, and our perception of time slowing down comes as we remember the event, afterwards. This itself can occur during an event, as we try to work out how long an incident has lasted e.g. if you find yourself taken to the ground during a fight, and you find yourself struggling with an attacker, you might wonder to yourself in that moment how long you have been fighting for, and have the feeling that you’ve been on the floor for many minutes, when you’ve actually only been down there for less than 10 seconds. This is a good reason not to think about what has happened during a fight, as a) it’s likely to be incorrect, and b) it doesn’t achieve anything – what is important is what you are doing to survive in the moment, not what went before.

The environment can also play a large part in what a witness is able to remember and recall. Some of the clubs that I have worked in had extremely low light, which drastically reduced a person’s face-recognition abilities. When you have a group of doorman, all dressed in white shirts and black trousers, with short haircuts and a common muscular build, identifying a particular individual whose face you may only have caught a glimpse of, from a distance, and in low light, becomes extremely problematic. I remember one occasion when a stag party was evicted from a club I was working at; they were removed through a side exit, and immediately returned to the main door, where I was working, to try and get back in. One of the party accused me of using excessive force when removing one of his friends. I’d been working front of house all evening, and hadn’t been involved in the incident – if he’d thought about it I wouldn’t have had the time to move through the club to the main door from where they’d been kicked out. However, he was adamant it was me, and even when the person he was talking about turned up, and identified himself, he still didn’t believe it. There’s a rule known as the “Rule of 15” that states, that under 15 lumens, and at a distance of 15 meters or more, facial recognition cannot be trusted or relied upon; in most Nightclubs, the ambient/normal light level is below this.

Most people, when they see a violent altercation, will fit what they see into their existing understanding of what violence looks like – many people don’t have an accurate reference point, if they’ve not witnessed a number of incidents. It is likely, that if they have been involved in a violent incident, this will color how they understand, make sense, and remember other violent incidents and events. If there are gaps in what they remember, it is likely that they will fill these in using their own experience(s) and/or assumptions about violence. If you are ever involved in a violent incident that goes legal, hope that there is good CCTV footage that captures the event, and that you don’t have to rely solely on what those witnessing it remember.

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