By Dr. Steve Albrecht
As of this writing on the day after (March 27, 2021), the Saturday afternoon stabbing incident at the Lynn Valley Library in North Vancouver, BC, Canada looks horrific. An as-yet-unnamed suspect in his 20s stabbed seven people with some type of knife or edged weapon, including a woman who died. All of the survivors had to be taken to the hospital. An early video outside the library shows the suspect being arrested by the RCMP and it appears he had injured himself in the incident. (It's common for attackers who use knives to hurt themselves, mostly on their hands and arms.) Police officials say they believe they have the lone perpetrator in custody and are "searching for a motive."
If we had to guess, it seems like the motive will center on a serious mental illness. Perhaps schizophrenia, involving voices or visions, with a command hallucination that compelled this person to stab a group of strangers in the library. This will all be left to his defense attorney and the court-ordered psychiatrist to determine.
As with mass shootings and other public attacks, where the motive is not domestic violence-related, a robbery, a gang retaliation, or a drug sale gone bad, the primary motivation for these random attacks is the desire for revenge. The attacker believes someone has treated him or her poorly, for whatever reason, and now this person needs to retaliate in the worst possible way.
It is the media who starts the earliest focus on the motive (and subsequently, the police and prosecutors, to make their case in court). The public will ask the same questions: Why did this happen? What would make someone do such a horrible thing, in the library, of all peaceful places?
Perhaps the motive, in this case, is irrational religious beliefs; terrorism; perceived mistreatment by a library employee; a confrontation with another library patron; anger at parents or siblings for the way the attacker was raised; or a homicide-suicide plan that was stopped before this person could carry out the second part.
An edged weapon (most commonly a knife, but also a razor, box cutter, carpet cutter, ice pick, or sharp object used to stab or slash) is a common carry for many street people. This is especially true with the chronically, long-term homeless (who need to defend themselves from assaults or robbery attempts) and mentally ill people (who may not be able to acquire a firearm because of legal, financial, or dysfunctional reasons). These sharp items are easy to hide, light and portable, cheap to get, available anywhere, noiseless, require almost no skill to use, and are therefore, deadly weapons all.
In your library, you may come across patrons who carry knives on a sheath on their belts. This could be a folding knife or a fixed knife, which does not fold. Some people carry tactical knives, which can be opened with one hand at the flick of their wrist. (These knives have largely replaced the classic "switchblade knife" popular in 50's teenage hoodlum movies). Since edged weapons are so flat, they can be hidden almost anywhere on a person's body, or in clothing, pockets, purse, backpack, wallet, or pocketbook. Not everyone who carries into the library is dangerous. It is their intent, with that knife, that we care about. Do they look like a construction worker or an irrational person? A tradesperson or a threatening person? Context, in these observations, matters.
One of the oldest sayings in law enforcement is, "It's the hands that kill." So if you are ever dealing with patrons who are acting irrationally, making threats to harm themselves or others, or seem about ready to explode into violence, pay close attention to what they are holding or carrying. Even if they are trying to hide an edged weapon, you may still see them holding something cupped in either hand.
Most people are righthanded (only 13% are lefthanded in the US). As such, most angry people seeking to use any type of weapon will hold it in their dominant hand. Play the percentages and focus on what they are holding in their right hands first.
Since a knife or other cutting/slashing object is a proximity weapon, your best defense when confronted by a person holding one is distance, and a lot of it. (People only throw knives in the movies.) You need to treat a patron armed with an edged weapon just as you would if they had a firearm: use Run – Hide – Fight. Get as far away from this person as possible, as quickly as you can, and take as many co-workers and patrons with you. Use all available proxemics barriers to put between you and the armed person to block his or her path to you as you escape: desks, chairs, counters, carts, half-shelves.
If you can get to a Safe Room, with as many colleagues and patrons as you can move there, do so. Lock or barricade the door and call 9-1-1 as soon as you can. Like with an active shooter, describe what this "armed attacker" is doing, to the police dispatcher. Wait from this position of safety until the police arrive.
If you have no choice but to defend yourself from an edged weapon attack, you can already guess your wrists, throat, and chest are your most vulnerable, life-ending targets. Try to grab whatever protective hard object you can: a chair; a notebook, hardback book, or a thick paperback; a keyboard, laptop, or tablet; to put between you and the knife and those areas of your body where you have the most arteries. You can survive being slashed – as long as it's not across your throat or wrists. You can survive being stabbed – as long as it's not to your heart or lungs. Space and distance are your first choices; protective objects are your next if you cannot flee the scene.
In our work in threat management, my colleagues care much less about motive, because it is discovered after the event, and therefore cannot be used to stop the event. We care more about interrupting the opportunity for harm.
As an example, consider that the US Marine Corps uses a three-part concept to talk about how we respond to a terrible, terrorism event, like a bombing. Each part is significant. There is "being on the Left of Boom," which is what we see and do before the bomb goes off, to stop it from happening. There is "Boom," where the bomb has just detonated. And there is "being on the Right of Boom," which is how we respond in the aftermath of the bomb going off. Obviously, our military branches and protective intelligence groups, like the US Secret Service, want always to be Left of Boom, stopping horrible things before they happen. As a threat management practitioner, I have spent my adult life trying to keep people Left of Boom.
Based on this incident, where the subject used an edged weapon to commit a homicide and injure or try to kill six other people, I have these threat assessment questions for the library staff:
- Did they see some warning signs in this person's behavior, in the months, weeks, or days before his attack?
- Had they ever seen him carry or display an edged weapon?
- Had he been asked to leave the library because of his negative interactions with staff or patrons?
- Had the police ever been called the library to deal with him?
- Did this person ever make overt or covert threats to harm himself or others?
- How did they interpret those threats? Rambling, nonsensical, not serious, or quite serious?
All this points to an adage in threat assessment and management that my colleagues and I follow: "A useful predictor of future threatening or violent behavior is past threatening or violent behavior."
While we can never "predict violence," predict the future, or ever predict human behavior, warning signs of either overt or veiled threats need a full security assessment from law enforcement or a trained security specialist.
As of this writing, we don't know if this person attacked only patrons, only library staffers, or both. We feel badly for the victims, no matter if they were visiting or working. The library is supposed to be a safe space for all. I will continue to my efforts to make that true.