Tuesday, December 11, 2012


"If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun."
The Dalai Lama

If someone is coming to kill you, rise against him and kill him first.”
Talmud Sanhedrin 72a

"And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one."
Luke 22:36

I am a student of violence. I study its practicalities: how to inflict it effectively, decisively, and most important, how to govern my life to minimize its necessity. That last is probably the hardest part, due in no small measure to the ambiguity of the word "necessary." 

Let's think about that. For some people, call them "caponized pacifists," violence is never necessary. I once heard a man say that he would not raise his hand against another even if his wife and daughters were being raped and murdered in front of him. He was perfectly sincere, and if someday it turned out that he was wrong it wouldn't do his family any good because his efforts would be pathetically ineffectual.

Besides rationalizing cowardice, his statements were hypocritical. If you're threatened, he'd say, call the police to protect you. And how do the police do that? With violence, sadly too often executed with gross incompetence. Consider this: If violence is morally wrong, is it less wrong  to employ surrogates to carry it out? And this: If one is prepared to do violence, isn't it a moral imperative to be as skillful at it as you can possibly be?

Jewish religious philosophy does not merely permit self defense. It is commanded, because if evil is not resisted it flourishes. That is, not defending oneself to the limits of one's ability is sinful. Note that surviving such resistance is not guaranteed; that's your responsibility. Many liberal Jews, conditioned to respond to evil with passivity, appeals to authority or endless discussion will be dismayed or offended by these statements. Tough.

As bad as the cowering capon is the gun-range vigilante, the one who carries his identity in his holster. No, he's not a sociopathic gang-banger or murderous bigot, he's just a wannabe soldier or cop who lives in a heroic fantasyland. He knows Red Dawn is a bloody fairytale but wishes it were real. He buys into the sheepdog fallacy, maybe even trains seriously, but neglects that last, vital element. Given the opportunity, he looks for trouble and too often finds it. For him, "necessary" violence means "whenever I can rationalize it." He's a stereotype the anti-gunners play up to the public in their efforts to caponize the world.

Serious men and women are quiet, competent, low-key. They know how to avoid trouble or defuse it, perhaps with a quiet word or a hard look. If trouble is inevitable they end it quickly and economically, without excess drama or unnecessary injury. I can't claim to be one of these people, but that's my goal.

Which brings us to the point. One can't claim to be nonviolent unless one can be violent in the first place. If you, by reason of temperament or inability, are incapable of violence, you have no choice. You are therefore incapable of moral action. Nonviolence means you are capable of violence but in a given situation have decided not to use that capability. The preening pseudo-pacifist unable to resist evil has no more moral virtue than the eager vigilante who has no idea what he's getting himself into when he sees a threat in every group of loudmouthed kids. The truly dangerous person who quietly settles a dispute is the one who's made the moral choice. And if, in some extreme, that person has to confront evil and do violence to end it, well, that's a moral choice too.




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