What should you do if you see a woman or child you don’t know being attacked by a grown man?

My gut reaction is to step in and stop him.  But as hard as it may be to accept, that might not be the best move.

The first priority in self defense is to avoid getting injured or killed, and if you have a wife, husband, and/or children, you have even more on the line.  Maybe you don’t see a weapon, but that doesn’t mean the attacker doesn’t have one.  Maybe you move to stop a man from beating a child and he turns around and shoots or stabs you.  How smart is it to risk your life for someone you don’t know, particularly if you have a family to take care of?

In 2002 my wife and I were at a hill tribe market in a remote part of northern Vietnam.  We were the only foreigners there.  We turned a corner and saw a man beating a woman, with a small crowd circling them.  The woman was bleeding, and the man kept punching her.  I really wanted to step in and nail the guy, but I had no idea what would happen if I did.  Would the crowd of people attack me?  There were sharp farming tools on the ground all over the market.  I could have been swarmed and killed.  Or, I could have ended up in a Vietnamese jail.  What would have happened to my wife?  As hard as it was, I think I made the right decision…to walk on.

On another occasion my wife and I had a couple of friends over to watch a movie at our house.  During the movie we heard a woman screaming outside.  We went to the window and a man was chasing a woman around a car parked in front of our house.  My wife ran to the phone to call the police, but as soon as she picked it up the man jumped across the hood of the car, grabbed the woman, and put her in a rear choke hold, choking her.  Without thinking, I went straight out the front door, moving to stop the guy.  It was dark, and I had no idea if the guy had a weapon.  I went outside so quickly that I didn’t even consider grabbing a weapon myself.  Fortunately, as I got close to the guy he let go of the woman and she ran away.  He turned and walked away too.  I got lucky.  When I came back in my wife asked me if I was crazy.  I made a mistake.  Although what I did was perhaps normal and definitely understandable, in my neighborhood it could have easily resulted in me getting shot.

Yesterday a good friend of mine emailed me and told me about a situation that had just occurred.  His brother stopped a driver (with a passenger) from driving away after hitting a parked car.  The driver got mad, the situation escalated, and he grabbed my friend by the shirt and attempted to hit him.  My friend hit him first and dropped him.  But then the passenger had grabbed my friend from behind, trying to hit him.  This continued for a bit, with my friend fortunately getting the better of the situation.  But it could have easily gone another way.  The passenger could have stabbed my friend in the back.  Would it have been worth it, to potentially stop someone from getting away with a hit and run?

So I decided to write this post.  These situations are never easy.  What you should do isn’t always obvious.  But my rule of thumb now is: Don’t get involved.  You’re not the police (most of you, at least).  If you or someone you care about isn’t being injured, call the police.  Maybe say out loud that the police are on their way.

It may feel wrong to stand by while someone attacks a smaller or weaker person, and some people may be unable to do that, but you have to consider the consequences of getting involved for those who depend on you.  If you do decide to get involved, you should do everything you can to accurately assess the situation first, and to minimize the damage you do.

If you come upon a situation where someone is doing something wrong, like a hit and run on a parked car, but no one is actually in danger, you definitely shouldn’t get involved.  You’re not the police, and it’s none of your business.  Don’t put yourself in danger.

This is a controversial topic, such situations are rarely simple, and different people will disagree on what should or shouldn’t be done. What’s most important is that you realize the pros and cons of getting involved. Think about it now, rather than acting without having thought about it before. Think about what you have to lose, what you would be risking, and when you are willing to take such risks. Let me know what you think about this in the comments.