He who hesitates is indeed lost

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

The second of Jeff Cooper’s Principles Of Personal Defense is decisiveness:

It is difficult for a domesticated man to change in an instant into one who can take quick, decisive action to meet a violent emergency. Most of us are unused to violent emergencies — especially those which can only be solved by the use of force and violence on our part — and these emergencies require a parturient effort of will to transform ourselves from chickens into hawks. Decisiveness, like alertness, is to some extent a built-in characteristic, but, also like alertness, it can be accentuated. In formalized combat it is supplied — or it should be — by appropriate orders from above. In cases of personal defense, it must be self-generated, and this is the problem.

When “the ball is opened” — when it becomes evident that you are faced with violent physical assault — your life depends upon your selecting a correct course of action and carrying it through without hesitation or deviation. There can be no shilly-shallying. There is not time. To ponder is quite possibly to perish. And it is important to remember that the specific course you decide upon is, within certain parameters, less important than the vigor with which you execute it. The difficulty is that the proper course of action, when under attack, is usually to counterattack. This runs contrary to our normally civilized behavior, and such a decision is rather hard for even an ordinarily decisive person to reach.

Short of extensive personal experience, which most of us would rather not amass, the best way to cultivate such tactical decisiveness is through hypothesis: “What would I do if…?” By thinking tactically, we can more easily arrive at correct tactical solutions, and practice — even theoretical practice — tends to produce confidence in our solutions which, in turn, makes it easier for us, and thus quicker, to reach a decision.

English common law, the fountainhead of our juridical system, holds that you may use sufficient force and violence to prevent an assailant from inflicting death or serious injury upon you — or your wife, or your child, or any other innocent party. You may not pursue your attacker with deadly intent, and you may not strike an unnecessary blow, but if someone is trying to kill you, you are justified in killing him to stop him, if there is no other way. This is putting it about as simply as possible, and since the law here is eminently reasonable, the legal aspects of personal defense need not detain us in formulating a proper defensive decision. We must be sure that our assailant is trying to kill or maim us, that he is physically capable of doing so, and that we cannot stop him without downing him. These conditions can usually be ascertained in the blink of an eye. Then we may proceed. (Incidentally, rape is generally considered “serious injury” in this connection. A man who clearly intends rape may thus be injured or killed to prevent the accomplishment of his purpose, if no lesser means will suffice.)

So, when under attack, it is necessary to evaluate the situation and to decide instantly upon a proper course of action, to be carried out immediately with all the force you can bring to bear. He who hesitates is indeed lost. Do not soliloquize. Do not delay. Be decisive.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    “So, when under attack, it is necessary to evaluate the situation and to decide instantly upon a proper course of action,…”

    Actually, the response has to be unconscious, like an infielder on a ground ball.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    He who is lost hesitates.

    Fight, flight, freeze: one of these is not applicable in modern times.

  3. Kirk says:

    Cooper’s contributions to the field of self-defense are immeasurable. The entire “condition” concept, rating where you are in terms of situational awareness, for example? Cooper.

    He was a crank, but a genius crank. And, more importantly, correct in a lot of his ideas. Plus, he had the qualities to popularize them, which is not insignificant.

  4. Lu An Li says:

    “Incidentally, rape is generally considered ‘serious injury’ in this connection”

    Serious injury to include some sort of mental impairment too. The infamous Caryl Chessman, the Red Light rapist was executed for rape. Under the law extant at the time, causing psychological damage as a result of rape was sufficient to get you the death penalty. And execution as was the case for Chessman.

  5. Graham says:

    I had never heard of Caryl Chessman. The Wikipedia article on him was certainly an education. I was rather surprised by the type of attention his case garnered.

  6. Kirk says:

    My take on criminals is that if you’re sufficiently deranged that you’re willing to commit an act of serious unprovoked violence against another, that’s a sign you need to be put down like any other rabid animal.

    Rapists don’t get the consideration they’re due because the weapon they effectively use to destroy another human’s life is one that takes a long time to act, and usually results in their victims taking their own lives through one means or another.

    Flip side to that, of course, is the number of false accusations that get made, because there are a lot of women who use those with flippant disregard for the effect the accusation has on the lives of their male victims.

    Left to me, a rapist would get a summary execution, and a false accuser would get precisely the same punishment. I’ve seen both sorts of assaults effectively end lives.

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