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Authors: Gavin de Becker,Thomas A. Taylor,Jeff Marquart

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BOOK: Just 2 Seconds
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Can we second guess who caused what, who precisely is to blame for precisely which result? No. But we can rewind history and harvest the wisdom that's offered. So let's go back to the Hinckley attack. Let's go into it deeper than most people ever have, for it teaches many profound lessons about the Moment of Recognition.

Photo from the Ronald Reagan Library

 

Using images that can be broken down into fractions of seconds, the incident looks like this: The President walks into view, stimulating Hinckley's Moment of Commitment. Hinckley fires the first shot. The first and clearest visible reaction is from Presidential Aide Michael Deaver. Deaver actually heard a bullet whiz through the air near his head. Unconsciously, his body takes over, the muscles in his back and shoulders pull him down to half his height. The video shows other people reacting similarly. A Washington D.C. police officer ducks almost to the ground, and Presidential Press Secretary James Brady falls to the pavement.

By the second shot, Jerry Parr is already reacting, ahead of all other agents who are visible. His left arm has bent, his hands have begun to come up toward Reagan. Next, Secret Service agents Ray Shaddick and Tim McCarthy each show a visible reaction: They have both ducked to heights lower than the President.

Photo from NBC News Archives

 

Hinckley is firing at will, and he is calm. He is quite accurately tracking the President's movement toward the car. When the President is occasionally blocked from his view, Hinckley pulls the trigger anyway, literally shooting people out of the way. First to fall is Presidential Press Secretary James Brady (shot in the head), then D.C. police officer Tom Delahanty (shot in the neck).

Photo from NBC News Archives

 

Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy is hit because he is standing in the way of Hinckley's shots at President Reagan (by now a Reagan/Parr amalgamation). Had McCarthy not been standing there as he was, that bullet might well have hit Reagan or Parr.

Now being pushed forward by Parr, the President is momentarily behind the glass of the open limousine door. Hinckley -- still tracking very well -- fires a shot that strikes the glass in that door. He has two bullets left.

Photo from NBC News Archives

 

The President is passing through an opening between the car door and the car, and he is finally in Hinckley's direct view. For the first time, nobody (no body) and nothing (no thing) is between the two men. The previously unflappable and accurate Hinckley is becoming less calm and more rushed because another Special Agent McCarthy, Dennis McCarthy, is now flying through the air toward him. Consequently, Hinckley's shot #5 is slightly too far left to hit the President. It hits the car instead of the President, and Hinckley is granted an unforeseen result: The bullet flattens out to a sharp, dime-sized disk, bounces off the car, and enters the President's chest.

Hinckley's life of insignificance has just been corrected in a millisecond. Though his view of the wounded President is quickly vanishing, he still has one shot left. He pulls the trigger -- but Dennis McCarthy's bear-like descent onto his back sends that last shot into oblivion, the bullet never to be recovered. (Some believe it struck a building across the street.) As he was pushed to the ground, Hinckley continued to click the trigger just in case he had any shots left.

Photo from NBC News Archives

 

Given what could have been known to protectors during the attack, and given all that we now know, we can agree that getting the President into the car was the right move. So let's now rewind back to Jerry Parr's Moment of Recognition, to the moment he embarks on his response to the shooting. In so doing, we can pick up the diploma offered by these few seconds.

Though there is no absolute consensus about the order of Hinckley's shots after Brady and Delahanty were hit, we are comfortable with this reconstruction: At the instant Jerry Parr decided to put his hands on the President and start shoving him forward (no small decision, by the way), Hinckley was tracking Reagan at about stomach height. McCarthy caught the first bullet that had a good chance of hitting the President. The next bullet hit the glass in the car door directly in line with the President as he walked. Hinckley was shooting very well as Parr moved the President along and bent him down to enter the car. As the President's head passed through the opening between the car door and the car, Hinckley was afforded his first and best direct view. The President's head was at the height that Hinckley's shots had been connecting with the car.

Press the Pause button right here: Had Jerry Parr's Moment of Recognition been even a few hundredths of a second later, that dime-sized disk would likely have hit the President in the head or neck, and likely killed him.

Good old Jerry Parr had come through brilliantly -- and we call him good "old" Jerry Parr intentionally -- to make a point about experience. Many think of protective work as a young man's game. Younger protectors are better able to work long hours on their feet, might have faster reaction time, and might be more fit, but they do not generally have the same level of control over their minds as more seasoned protectors. They do not have thousands of experience files in their heads to compare to the present situation. By the time Jerry Parr reached March 30, 1981, he had already emerged from a thousand buildings into the flashbulbs and excited energy of a thousand waiting crowds.

He had made that walk to the car thousands of times -- not always the same car, not always the same protectee -- but always the same possibilities along the way. Like all experienced protectors, he had many times heard a popping noise that turned out to be something other than a gunshot. And every time, that sound triggered a nearly instant and intuitive evaluation of everything within perception -- and yet Parr never before invoked the Big Response (knocking the protectee to the ground or roughly accelerating him into the car). He had in the past put his hands on a protectee, moved him to the side, sped him up, and slowed him down, but despite hearing sounds like gunfire, he had not ever before completed the Big Response as he did this time.

By knowing the flavor of non-attack situations, good old Jerry Parr inversely knew the flavor of attack situations. He heard a pop, saw extreme movement in the periphery, and immediately his hands began to come up. By the second pop, he was already committed to completing an action. We can't know all that Parr's intuition weighed and responded to, but we do know it took him about
three tenths of a second
to move through assessment of the sound, assessment of his other perceptions, the Moment of Recognition, and his commitment to the Big Response.

Jerry Parr's experience gave him (and President Reagan) other advantages: He had less fear of being wrong than some younger agents would have had. A younger agent might apply more hesitation before invoking the Big Response. Who wants to be the guy who pushes an aging President to the ground because a tire bursts a block away? But Parr was at a stage in his career and character development that he could, even if he were wrong in his assessment and response, confidently stare down any detractors. He could take the heat. Had the noise turned out to be something other than a gunshot, Parr could find satisfaction in knowing he did the right thing no matter what others might say or believe.

Parr's experience continued to serve the President even after he got him into the car. Just seconds after the gunfire stopped, the limousine sped toward The White House. Nobody yet knew that the President has been hit, not even the President. Feeling some pain in his chest, he thought perhaps a rib was broken or sprained when Parr pushed him to the floor of the car and jumped on top of him. In fact, the flattened bullet was doing grave damage inside his chest, but President Reagan felt alert and appeared fine when he asked Parr to get off him. "You're hurting me, Jerry."

Even though Parr observed no obvious problems, he ran his hands under the President's suit. No blood. But then Parr saw blood in the President's mouth. It was red, bubbly, and it instantly led Parr to his second Moment of Recognition for March 30th -- and his second Big Response: He ordered the driver to a new destination, George Washington Hospital. Every doctor and scholar familiar with the case has concurred that the President would likely have died in the absence of that decision.

The issues of age and experience also apply to Dennis McCarthy. During more than a decade and a half as a protector, he too had heard plenty of popping sounds, car backfires, firecrackers, and bursting balloons. The sound of the first shot could have been anything, but when the sound came again, Dennis McCarthy invoked the Big Response just a tenth of a second after Jerry Parr. For all practical purposes, the two men responded simultaneously, while many of the others present were still far from their own individual Moments of Recognition.

Like Jerry Parr, Dennis McCarthy had the confidence and character to risk being wrong. If he jumped on some person who turned out to pose no danger, Dennis McCarthy could handle it; he could help the person up, apologize, and then face whatever consequences followed. That is less true for an agent on the first day of his first protective assignment.

Neither man wasted any of his very limited time reaching for a weapon. Both responded quickly and effectively. Of course, nobody on the sidewalk that afternoon could move faster than Hinckley's bullets -- an ever-constant fact that underscores the value of detecting and recognizing the Moment of Commitment as early as possible.

In the coming chapters, close-quarter attacks will get most of our attention, for two reasons: First, they represent nearly 80% of all attacks. Second, the close-quarter attack provides the best situation for studying the contest between protector and attacker, and as such represents our greatest opportunity to make meaningful improvements in protector performance. Since bombs don't allow for much of a contest, there are limited opportunities to improve how protectors respond at the moment of an explosion. With close-quarter attacks, however, there is plenty of room for improvement.

The basic elements of assassination haven't changed in centuries, technology having not brought the sea change to assassination or protection that it has to almost everything else. For attackers, the most significant technological changes involve remote control detonation of explosives, and for protectors the most significant changes involve weapons screening and light armor (for wearing, vehicles, buildings, etc.). Perhaps because not much has changed in attacker strategies, not much has changed in protective strategies either.

Ideally, in studying any topic, you reach a point at which you stop finding new wrinkles and instead identify factors that appear and reappear regularly. In the study of spousal homicide, for example, there's no shortage of data; in America, a woman is killed by a spouse every two hours. So after you've drawn lessons from, say, a thousand cases, and you've seen the same dynamic again and again, it's possible to develop binding theories. That's where we are with public figure attack: Having drawn lessons from hundreds of attacks and thousands of simulated attacks, we've now got some new insights that can influence protective strategies. Ironically, some of the key wisdom revealed to us through this study was already known to animals.

BOOK: Just 2 Seconds
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