Deadly And Lethal Think Before You Advocate The Use Of Killing Techniques

April, 2013,

I recently attended a martial arts seminar that was just plain disturbing. The highlight of the demo portion was a series of defenses against a knife attack. Nearly every routine went like this: Block the stabbing arm, throw the attacker, apply a wrist lock and cut his neck with his own knife. What bothered me was the thoughtlessness with which the students drew rubber knives across bare throats. Their actions meant death, and there was no sign these martial artists — some of whom were as young as 12 or 13 — understood it. Killing someone is horrible. Even if you are justified in taking a life, it means the absolute end of another human being. No one ever really makes peace with having killed someone. It is a humbling thing, a black stain on your soul that never goes away. I’d wager that no one in that demonstration ever cut into another living thing, much less a human throat. If they had, they wouldn’t have taken it so lightly. Reality I guess what really bothers me is that this cavalier attitude toward killing is not confined to that demonstration or even the art that was featured. I’ve seen attackers get dispatched with their own rubber weapons in a dozen demos from as many different arts. What is disturbing is that we no longer take death seriously. We don’t take death seriously because we don’t have to. Most of us live comfortable lives in a relatively safe society. The martial arts are no longer a necessity for survival. They are a bourgeois hobby — $75 a month to get in shape and learn self-confidence. But the level of comfort we’ve achieved in contemporary martial arts is a subtle betrayal. Comfort is not what brought the arts into being or sustained them for thousands of years; an omnipresent threat of assault and murder did. History The people who founded the martial arts we now study took death seriously. They did because they had to. They couldn’t count on police to protect them or hospitals to heal them. In the lawless societies that spawned the fighting arts, violent confrontation was part of everyday life. And without the safety net of dependable and accessible health care, each injury was potentially fatal. This is why the ancient masters were so secretive, treating each technique with ritual awe. Their actions had absolute consequence, and they were acutely aware of it. Death was never far away. Now that violent confrontation is no longer an everyday occurrence, we no longer feel our own mortality. We play at death, carving each other up with rubber knives to titillate crowds. We give lectures on our “deadly” or “lethal” techniques, then congratulate ourselves on restraining our righteous anger. We talk about death like we understand it and have it under control. But we don’t. Necessity If there is one thing that is sorely lacking in the martial arts, it is an understanding that life is brief and fragile and that this is the reason we learn discipline and respect in the dojo. As martial artists, we must always remember that our actions can have absolute consequences. Resources To order Keith Vargo's book Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior, go here. To download a FREE Guide titled Hoplology: Martial Arts Weapons and How Humans Fight, go here. For more information about Keith Vargo and his martial arts writings, visit his blog.


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Caroline May Apr 2013
"Most of us live comfortable lives in a relatively safe society. The martial arts are no longer a necessity for survival. They are a bourgeois hobby — $75 a month to get in shape and learn self-confidence." I agree that we need to respect life and take death seriously, but when 1 in 6 American women have experienced rape or attempted rape, it is more than a bourgois hobby -- at for that half of the population. http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims
Scot Conway Apr 2013
True that there was a day when the arts were studied "because I will need them" as opposed to "just in case I need them." Even if we go with Caroline's statistic, 5 in 6 women will go their whole lives and never be raped. I teach a statistic derived from the Uniform Crime Reports that only 1 in 3 people will actually need to fight to defend themselves against serious bodily harm at any time in their lives. That means 2 in 3 will go their whole lives in relative safety - perhaps some conflict and some violence, but nothing at the level that might justify seriously harming another human being. As Keith Vargo has noted, I have also seen a disturbing number of lethal responses in self-defense techniques. Not only are techniques elevated to lethal levels without the students having any understanding of what it means to take a life, the lethal force is often unnecessary, immoral and illegal! In Vargo's example, if you have disarmed the person and then you slit their throat, you are killing a now-unarmed man! Not only are you going lethal as a response to a knife attack, you are doing it after the person no longer poses a lethal threat! That could be taken as manslaughter under those circumstances. Ricardo Liborio was teaching a seminar on gun defenses. He noted that many of the black belts attending were stepping back after a disarm and indicating two or three shots to the now-disarmed attacker. He and I chatted about that for a moment with heads shaking before he corrected it. Even when the instructor isn't teaching it, many students still think "kill 'im" and play at their training accordingly.