Friday, December 05, 2008

The thin red line

There is a thin line between pre-emptive attack and counterattack.  I'm not saying that pre-emptive attack is a bad strategy- sometimes it's a pretty good way of defending yourself.  I'm also not saying that counterattacking is morally superior to pre-empting aggression, but think about this...
  • At what point do you cross the line and become the aggressor - the one responsible for precipitating greater violence and chaos?
  • At what point have you waited too long and you are forced into a reactive role?
The thin line depends on prediction, which is shaky because chaotic violence is outside most folks field of experience – you have little or nothing upon which to base a prediction.
So, does pre-emptive attack play a role in your martial art or your self defense strategy, and if so, how do you know when to pull the trigger?


  1. This concept is one of the reasons I started studying aikido. If I can control a situation without damaging a foe, I can avoid a lot of the sticky bits of the answer.

    My way of choosing is to be aware, and scale accordingly. A man attempting mere physical intimidation can generally be driven off simply by making them aware that you are willing to take it to a fight.

    So far, God be praised, it has been years since I have needed to fight -well before I started studying aikido. All of the conflicts have evaporated when I decided to hold my ground against some aggressor. It's downright amazing how fast some people can switch from overtly hostile to conciliatory. "In your face" to "I didn't mean nuthin'" in a moment, when I have yet to even say a thing.

    I'd prefer to keep things as minimally dangerous as possible, but if I have to escalate all the way up to lethal force, I see no ethical flaw in doing so, provided that you allow them an opportunity to escape or surrender before it gets there, and you react.

    Me, I think we should err on the side of waiting until they initiate a conflict, though I generally consider one step more violent valid. A man who says something untoward is not a candidate for a sock to the nose, but one who threatens is. A guy who attacks with restraint, deserves less restraint. The greater the threat, the greater the response may be. When a person attacks without restraint, defense is the only priority left. Moral ambiguities go away.

    So I lean towards waiting until an overt sign of hostility occurs, but I have faith that God will see me through safely or take me home, so I have a bit of a different perspective than many.

    As a Christian, I want to be as peaceful as possible. On the other hand, I'm not going to let innocents be damaged when I can stop it. ( and that includes me from time to time.)

    1. As per usual, the christers bring religion into everything and make it completely contrary.

  2. aaargh-no time to comment--but off the top o' me head:

    it seems to me that a person can often, with training, see an attack coming and react before an untrained person will understand what is going on--kind of like when your outstretched palm is waiting for a long time before the cashier finally gets 'round to finishing counting the change. Under such circumstances, your totally defensive move will look like an aggressive move, or beating someone to the punch, which might look awfully bad in court.

  3. It's certainly possible to come up with scenarios where outright aggression on your part would be prudent. Multiple opponents, especially, present a scenario where this "the assailant must swing first" idea that the law has is ridiculous. If you go down, you won't get back up.

    I'm reminded that "it's better to be tried by 12 than carried by 6." You might go to jail in such a situation (and in our weak, liberal society I would expect it) but then that's just more proof that perfect justice doesn't appear on this earth. We'll have to wait for latter for that. :)

  4. I think a few things can certainly be said for the intelligent, surgical application of violence.

  5. That's right Rick. I think that anyone who has said something like, "Violence doesn't solve anything" has probably only ever been on the receiving end.

    But what is it that makes it surgical and intelligent?

  6. I also think it's interesting that the first three commenters based some of their understanding of violence upon God and man's relationship to God. Nate's references were obvious, Savage Baptist's were presumed based on his name, and Dave's was in his surprise last sentence.

    Violence is not evil in itself but when man apart from the context of God's will acts violently, it is evil.

    What's the quote from the old Japanese sword text (the name of which eludes me right now) - something like - "A good weapon is a terrible thing. Heaven's Way abhors their use." I think that quote is interesting because it acknowledges the necessity of violence ('good weapon') but heaven's way still hates the results of their use.

  7. Pat, this question always brings me back to the foundatinal principle of "understand how you contribute to failure." Although violence is not always avoidable, we sometimes do things /act in ways / make decisions that either unnecessarily place ourself in dangerous positions or exacerbate or escalate a situation to violence. Not that making such a choice makes the violence in the least bit condonable, warranted, or justified, but did we egg that person on when we could have simply apologized or removed ourself from the situation? Did we put ourselves in the middle of a bad part of town late at night alone? Again, don't want to blame the victim, but I think that often we can avoid violence by being pre-emptive in our choices.

    That said, when violence is upon you, it's nearly impossible to have the time to think about the ethics of the situation - you've got to be prepared to do what it takes to either survive or minimize damage. You've also got to be able to quickly evaluate what level of violence you may be up against. You don't want to rip an arm off of someone who may just want to push you over. I think the ability to judge and make those kind of situations quickly comes from understanding yourself, your abilities, and understanding the nature of violence some also.

    It's one of the reasons I love our style of aikido - I know the basic moves - the ones my body will almost instinctive and reflexively do will usually buy me time, likely stop aggression and cause minimal harm unless the attacker is really gung ho after me.

  8. An additional point I couldn't see how to fit into my previous post:

    The less important a thing a person is willing to become violent over, the more dangerous they are. Also, the more violent they are willing to get over a situation, the more dangerous they are. A person who is willing to kill for a quarter is not someone who needs to be coddled and catered to.

    I still consider it important to give an aggressor a chance to back out of the fight, assuming that doing so doesn't get innocents injured. With that caveat, however, once you engage, for good or ill, it's no longer time to ponder the ethics.

  9. I think you're right, Nate, but you can't ever tell what a given person is willing to get violent about. So you have to treat everybody with respect for their potential.

    Regarding giving the enemy a way out, I don't remember if it was Musashi or SunTzu that said that you should never corner someone and cut off all their escapes because this makes them desperate and dangerous. It is better to leave them a way out because it reduces the stakes for them and makes them more amenable to de-escalation.

  10. Mike & Nate,

    I agree that ethics of violence is one of the things that you have to think about and become comfortable with long before a conflict happens.

    When the Shtuff hits the fan there will be no time to think about ethics (among other things) and that sort of thing will just paralyze you.

    Was it Stonewall Jackson who said that in time of war it is best to draw your sword and throw away the scabbard?


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