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Anatomy of an Attack

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #32 (December 1978)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Jason Wotherspoon of Australia.

We perceive an attack when we believe our lives or well-being are in danger or when we consider that our territory, physical or psychological, has been encroached upon. For example, if an angry three-year old child, arms flailing, approaches an adult, normally such an act is not regarded as an attack. That is, the adult does not consider the child’s action to be a physical threat. The same adult, however, the object of an assault by a gun-wielding assailant will certainly feel he has been attacked. Let us imagine a third case where a skilled martial artist is confronted by a man in possession of a knife. It is conceivable that such an individual due to long years of training and mental preparation will not in any way behave as though in an emergency situation and will matter-of-factly proceed to apply a measure appropriate to the circumstances. In all three instances, the question of whether or not an attack has occurred is dependent on the perception of the person acted upon or the person evaluating the scene.

In the psychological realm, we have an analogous situation that may be, however, infinitely more complex. If an individual feels that some action (other than obvious physical aggression) or words, or combination thereof, constitute a threat to his mental or emotional well-being or an invasion of his psychological territory, he is likely to act in a defensive or counter-offensive manner. Here, again, what is significant is not the external event itself but rather one’s perception of the event. As an example, we might totally disregard a remark made by a friend or family member, yet the same words directed towards us by our employer might be very threatening as the latter holds the keys to our economic well-being. One might also perceive an attack even when not the intended addressee of aggressive speech or behavior. Take the case of the jealous man who feels “personally attacked” when some third party pays excessive attention to his wife or lover (regarded psychologically as his property). In fact, it is not even necessary that the “attacked” person be present at the time. A simple report of some act of aggression may be sufficient for someone to “perceive” an attack.

The three ingredients then which seem to combine to produce an “attack” are: a victim (one who perceives himself to be threatened), an attacker (who may or not be conscious of his role), and some instrument of attack, tangible or intangible.

If we part from the premise that an attack depends upon the perception of the victim or viewer of the event, then practically anyone or any group may play the role of attacker. Consequently, any attempt to list characteristics which typify “attackers” would necessarily be incomplete. However, I think it safe to say that there are certain stereotyped images that most of us would identify as “attacker” types: a physically large man with a “sinister” face, an armed individual about to commit an act of physical violence, a verbally aggressive person, someone who invades our personal space boundaries, the emotionally agitated person, someone in a position of power, real or imagined, with respect to ourselves and with whom we are not on good terms, and so on. The attacker on a higher level of abstraction might be seen as a group. For example, Nazi Germany, communists, imperialists, student radicals, the Ku Klux Klan, etc.

If the attacker manifests his power or strength in any of innumerable ways, the victim, on the other hand, reveals weakness of some sort. What mental images does mention of the word “victim” elicit? Perhaps, the physically small, weak-appearing person, someone whose posture and body language suggest passiveness and withdrawal, the verbally uncertain or inarticulate individual, persons in financial straits, or someone not in complete possession of his mental faculties would fit our preconception of the “typical victim.” And as before, whereas the attacker might be identified as a group or an institution, so too the victim can prove to be a group or class of individuals (the poor and illiterate, the Third World, taxpayers, workers, etc.).

In investigating the mechanics of an attack we have several times alluded to the use of a weapon or certain behavioral patterns that we might term “instruments of attack.” This may be a physical object: a stick, knife, gun, fist, etc. Less tangible examples of instruments of force would be: various forms of verbal expression or coercion leading to emotional arousal (shouts, criticism, insults), the threat of physical force (“I’ll knock your teeth in!”), the application of economic pressure (“If you want to keep your job, do what I tell you!”), or perhaps the exertion of some sort of social or political pressure (“To be quite frank, Mr. Senator, if this bill fails to pass, I’m not sure our organization will be able to continue its support of your ticket in the upcoming election.”). Even a person’s “reputation” might be capitalized upon as a psychological weapon by someone cognizant of its potential use or abuse, as you like (“Mr. X is a real cruncher!” or “That guy makes a pass at every woman in sight.”). Such examples of the application of force range from the most grossly obvious to the incredibly subtle.

What might the practitioner of Aikido gain through an understanding of the “anatomy of an attack?” All of us become “attackers” and “victims”, willingly or not, on numerous occasions during our lifetimes. Assuming that many of us regard O-Sensei’s martial ideal as a relevant and workable model to be systematically applied in our daily lives and not merely a vague “pipe dream”, then we might take a long look at ourselves and attempt to discover how others view us. Do we inspire confidence or distrust, love or fear, respect or pity? How can we reshape our images so as to evoke the kind of response we desire in others? What patterns of behavior can we use or avoid in order to better harmonize with those around us? Serious reflection on such matters as these might lead to the conscious application of Aikido principles in all areas of our lives and in turn amplify the constructive influence of Aikido on society as a whole.