Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Talhoffer Society, and On Killing

I just finished The Talhoffer Society.  This will not be a review as such, although I will write one of those later (probably somewhere else, where it will be seen by more people, although I may do a more personal friends-and-family review here).  I will say that it has been a good long while since I have read a book that is excellent (italicized for the Natalian).

Anyway.  As I said, this is not a review.  It's going to be a post about force, and about killing, and why I think those are important topics.

TTS is about a modern-day tournament fought using real swords, sponsored by the rich and powerful.  This is, of course, a classic martial arts fantasy (cue Mortal Kombat theme), and for that reason I should mention not only that the central premise of the book was considerably more sophisticated than I had anticipated, but that all of the places in the beginning that struck me as sloppy plotting turned out to be satisfactorily addressed by the end.
( For those who are curious, competitive fighting with real swords is not entirely fictional.  I know of one group of people that fought on a semi-regular basis with no protection and real swords that were allegedly properly sharpened.  I have no idea how good these people were, though I know that at least some of them had or went on to have actual killing experience (not of each other, thankfully).  I am fairly certain I know other fencers, of whose skill I have more direct knowledge, who have done it, albeit not as a regular activity.  I am not aware of any top-level organized live steel competition backed by what amounts to the Illuminati, but then, I wouldn't be, would I? )
In a story such as this, as you might expect, a lot of the characters' skull time is spent thinking about the relationship between martial arts, martial arts practice, and death.  Or maybe you wouldn't expect that; I don't know.  As for me, I was ... hoping for it.  I am greatly edified by my hopes having been met (but now I'm getting review-y again).

As regular readers know, I practice KDF in order to think about death.  I vacillate between thinking this is utterly ordinary and probably uncommon.  I've heard real people express the sentiment that most Americans probably don't understand that "self defense" involves killing people, or proclaim in ominous tones that guns are made For Just One Purpose, which is To Kill.  This flabbergasts me, because ... well, duh?  I'd like to think most people who own or practice with weapons understand quite well that before you can get into any nonsense about good guys and bad guys, you've got to be able to kill: to crush flesh and shatter bone; to cause limbs and trunk to part company; to turn a human being who is a parent or child and turn it into lifeless, pitiful meat; to send the spirit of another human being wailing down to hell and leave their body as a feast for dogs and birds.  Murder, combat, attack, defense, justifiable use of force - these are all legal or moral conclusions, not acts.  The act itself is simply killing.

I'd like to believe that this is a commonplace understanding.  Mostly this is because the converse is terrifying to me.  Weapons can be fun, but they aren't toys, after all.  But it's also because the converse is baffling to me.  Why the hell (if I can continue in a Homeric vein) would you want to lay hands on a weapon if not to get in touch with the stark, singular, solitary reality of killing?

Maybe this seems strange.  I've tried before to explain why I think it is important.  I have even said that I think killing is inextricably related to being a good person (not that I think being a good person is particularly important, but it's not nothing, either).  I still think that.  I don't know that I'm going to be able to do a better job of explaining now.  But TTS  offers its own meditation on the subject, and more directly than I can recall any other piece of fiction doing.  It's inspired me, I suppose, to try again.  So here I go.

I have heard it said that humanity is divided into sheep and wolves, usually with the subtext that being a sheep is bad.  I don't think this is true (though perhaps I am being Cicero here).  Certainly I think it is true that most people have a natural aversion to killing, and some people have no particular aversion to it, and some people actively enjoy it.  But I see no way in which this is of moral consequence.  What I do think is of moral consequence is self-possession: to make one's will the master of one's actions (to determine upon good actions is another matter, of course, but self-possession is a necessary precursor).  And the subject of killing, I think, tends to bring this into starker relief than do other topics.  In part this is precisely because most people have a natural aversion to killing.  But I think there's more to it than that.  Killing seems to me like ... well, like a sort of moral nexus.  Because it isn't just about the willful termination of biological life.  To borrow Jesus' example (not that he was the only moral thinker to have posed this question), what really is the difference between killing someone and being angry enough to kill someone?  Is it truly that the stark fact of biological existence is so all-fired important?  I'm certainly willing to say that death is bad ... but am I prepared to say that dealing death is bad?  I don't think so - and yet how can that be?  And of course there are the more mundane questions that killing asks of us, such as under what circumstances we would be willing to do it.  Would we really kill one life to preserve another?  Why?  Doesn't that imply that one life is more important than another?  If not, on what basis are we willing to make the choice (and yet, sheep or not, I think almost all people share the instinct that sometimes, killing is the right thing to do)?  Yet if so, doesn't that imply terrible things about the moral implications of sin and our own ability to forgive?  Or put it another way: if you haven't settled for yourself when you would kill someone, how can you have settled when you would forgive someone?  And if you aren't working to be able to kill someone, how can you be working to being able to forgive?  Does it seem strange to link death and forgiveness so naturally?  I am Christian, after all.

I've begun to wax spiritual.  And I'm not really apologetic about that, because I think people who eschew the spiritual are stupid.  But I don't wish to get too ... esoteric, I suppose.  Because these questions - death, forgiveness, self-possession - are of immediate, temporal urgency.  I mean this generally.  But I also mean it personally, in the sense that meditating on the how, why, and when of killing has helped me not to kill myself.  I keep Ruusaan in my bedroom in significant part to remind myself that I choose not to die: that I choose to live, that I choose to be forgiven, and to forgive.  There have even been times, late at night, when it has gotten so bad that I have to physically hold her in my hands, to see her edge glow in the moonlight, to feel the heft of her that wants to hew, that was made to part flesh from flesh - and to know that I hold her.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Holding On and Letting Go

"Nu gar cuyi ner burc'ya.
Ni kar'tayli gar gai sa ner aru'e.
Enteyo kyr'amur gar.
Ni cuyi kyr'am."

You are not my friend.  I know your name as my enemy.  I must kill you.  I am become death.  After a morning of judging the open longsword competition at the Southeast Renaissance Fencing Open, the time has finally come for me to enter the ring and fight.  I'm looking at my friend the Spider Monkey, murmuring this mantra under my breath.

I'm in the invitational longsword tournament rather than the open, as I had expected to be in.  It's a compliment to be in the invitational; it means the organizer trusts not only my skill in general but also trusts me to put on a display of technical, artful fencing whether I win or lose.  And isn't that the point?  A few days before the event I confide to Kebbura that I don't really feel worthy of the invitation, and she makes this very point to me.  Maybe I can't win.  But I'm not in it to win, right?  I'm in it to fence well.  Tournament success is not the pinnacle of good swordsmanship.

And yet ... I do want to win.  That's why I'm going, after all.  Yes, I want to win with technical, artful fencing.  A win without that wouldn't mean very much to me, because technical and artful are part of the fencer I want to be.  But they're only part.  I also want to be implacable and merciless.  If I ever come at you with a sword, I want you to know right from the start that death is coming for you, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.  I want to see Ailouros' predatory smile - the one she discovered at Longpoint - the next time we meet, lock eyes with her, and say, "Bring it, bitch."

I'm not there yet.  The art is coalescing in my head and my limbs and my hands; I can feel it.  I'm stronger and faster, less easily winded.  I can see better than I used to be able to, not only what happened and why but what is going to happen.  But it isn't all synthesized yet, not the way I want it to be.  I need to know that when it all comes down to this moment, I can bring all these pieces together and fuse them into a single whole.  So yeah, I want to win.

Most of this is mental.  Part of it is aggression, something I've always had trouble with in fencing when it comes down to it.  Most of it is singing, dancing.  When I sing a patter song I'm not thinking about the lyrics; if I try, I'll trip myself up.  When I dance, part of me is thinking ahead, but most of me is just in the moment, feeling what is and being immersed in it.  I remember the Dance Master talking about this, the joy of letting go while still being hyper-attuned to the instant moment.  Letting everything go, while holding on to my focus.  I can do it when I dance.  I can do it when I sing.  I need to be able to do it when I fence.

It's not a light switch yet.  I have to sink into this mental state slowly and deliberately.  Hence the mantra.  Nu gar cuyi ner burc'ya.  Ni kar'tayli gar gai sa ner aru'e.  Enteyo kyr'amur gar.  Ni cuyi kyr'am.  You are not my friend.  I know your name as my enemy.  I must kill you now.  I am become death.  I repeat it to myself under my breath.  Louder, once my helmet goes on.  The bucket muffles sound going in and out, and I let myself sink further into my own world.  My lips still, and my perceptions begin to change, like a filter lowering into place.  My opponent's joints, limbs, and sword are no longer a threat.  They tell me how I can take him apart.  This is how I want to fence, how my art tells me to fence.  I gaze levelly at my opponent, feel my body arranged beneath me, the fit of Ijaat's handle in my grip.  You can't beat me.

He can, and he does.  Spider Monkey is still better than me in the ring.  But I do much better than the judges' calls indicate, as even some of the spectators tell me afterwards and which my opponent himself is happy to acknowledge.

The next two fights I win.  They aren't shut-outs, but I never feel the fight slipping away from me, either.  I don't know either of my opponents.  It doesn't matter.  I see them, and I hit the cracks that I see until they've been taken apart.  We dance, and I lead.

I make it out of the pool into the final sixteen, along with Spider Monkey.  This is a huge accomplishment by itself.  The only other time this has happened to me in a longsword event was at Iron Gate Exhibition 2014, which was due not so much to my fencing ability as to my superior game theory analysis of the rules.  This advancement is mine.  This one, I am proud of.

I don't make it out of the final sixteen.  My opponent is cagey, harder to trick into making mistakes.  We end the match in a tie, and he beats me in sudden death when I get impatient.  But it isn't the impatience that was the problem.  I can see it now, what I should have done - how I could have pushed him harder, or in a different way, to take him apart.  And I see what I was doing, treating him like my last two opponents.  I was fighting the last war.  Dancing without sensing my partner.  I stopped seeing my opponent.

That's okay.  I will do better next time.  I've proven to myself that I can do it.  I am content.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Longpoint 2015

When I met Zod for the first time, it was to teach a sparring workshop for the first time any of us had sparred with swords (at least in a HEMA fashion).  One of the things he told us was that it was the responsibility of those of us who had a killer instinct already to help the others cultivate it.  "You have it," he said, pointing to one of us.  "You do, and so do you," he said, pointing to two others.  And then he looked at me.  He hesitated for a moment.  "You sort of have it," he said.

At the time, I was pretty okay with that.  Half a killer instinct?  Not bad for someone just starting out.  But in the months since, others found theirs while I did not.

This bothers me.  I want to acquire access to that part of myself that Zod termed the "killer instinct."  I want to be able to turn it off and on at will, to find that part of myself and bring it within the ambit of my will.  I want it even more (if only by a little) than acquiring actual skill with a sword.  More than any other factor, this is the reason I started doing HEMA.  When I talk about the connection between force and morality, or force and good character, this is the very essence of what I mean.

Aside from its moral implications, there are obvious competitive advantages to having one's killer instinct firmly in one's tool kit as well.  Most of the best fencers, if not all, can switch from their normal selves to somebody else when they step into the ring, or before the cutting stand.  That somebody else is a significant part of why they win.

It was also a significant part of why I lost this weekend at Longpoint.  I cut significantly worse than I know I can do, because I let myself approach the mat with less than single-minded intensity.  I fought well enough in my longsword pool, but I didn't push, didn't take, as well as I know I can.  Part of that is rust from not having sparring partners who are as good or better than me.  But a significant part of it is also that I went into my pool in the same headspace I would occupy in any friendly (or even coaching) sparring match.

I think I figured it out about halfway through the event, coaching first Ailouros and then Kebbura in the women's longsword pools.  I said something to Kebbura when she was facing Panthera and holding back (as usual) that stuck in my mind.  I pointed across the ring at her and said, "That is not your friend right now.  I want you to get in there and hit her."

I coached Ailouros through her pool in the women's longsword and into the elimination brackets.  I felt like we developed a good rapport, and I enjoyed analyzing the weaknesses of her opponents and helping her to exploit them (and more, perhaps, on the coaching side of things later).  But I also just tried to get her amped up for the fight, because most of the women she faced had significant exploitable weaknesses and I just knew she could take advantage of them - if she went in with the right attitude.

The night that she got into the elimination brackets - the night after she beat the woman who would eventually take fourth place - she posted something to Facebook that really rattled me.  "I found my inner bitch today," she said.  "And not just the one I fight health insurance companies with.  The one I fight with."

Both of these ladies started training a few "generations" of students after I did (which is a matter of months, mind you; we acquired generations pretty quickly in Manhattan).  Because I like teaching and I wanted the school to succeed, I made an effort to mentor them, and I feel a certain amount of investment in their success as their senpai.  I was, of course, very proud of Ailouros' fighting and I could see, even in the pools, when she made the jump from fencer to fighting bitch.  But I was also kind of shaken.

Son of a bitch, I thought.  My kohai has found her killer instinct before me.

This was the moment that I realized I had been fighting without it all this time.  But it was also the moment that I realized I didn't know what it was, and that bothered me a lot more.  What is my inner bitch? I wondered.  What does she look like?

I tried to think back to the times I had felt my killer instinct in a fight, even if briefly and non-deliberately.  The best I could think of was the dagger competition at IGX (my best competitive showing to date, perhaps not coincidentally).  It felt ... almost cold, to be honest.  Certain.  And focused, ever so focused, on the defeat of the person in front of me.

If I ever kill someone, that is how I want it to be.  Cold.  Emotionless.  Certain.  Implacable.  That is how death should be dealt out, so far as I understand the morality of killing.  It's the kind of swordsman I want to be.

Maybe these thoughts are naive.  Almost certainly they are in at least some respect.  But it was something to start from.

So I meditated on that through the night.  I meditated on it all through Ailouros' fights in the brackets. I tried to keep her in that state as well.  I meditated on it in several otherwise friendly sparring matches I had.  And I meditated on it during today's cutting class, during which I hoped to be able to show, before my friend and teacher and a bunch of people who knew that I was the student of one of the best longsword cutters in the world, that I really can cut.  As I did so, I felt that calm, cold, unfeeling certainty return.  I was interrupted by people saying good bye, and I was able to return to that state.  And when it was finally my turn to cut, I stared down the mat and cut the way I should have cut during the qualifiers, and afterwards people who had felt pretty good about their improvement during the class asked me how I made it look so lazy.

Of course, a good headspace for cutting is not necessarily the same as a good headspace for fighting.  But we shall see.  We shall see.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Fencing Retrospective, Two Years

Two years ago today I had my first KdF class.  Two years have passed in my own timeline since I first began to practice in Prospect Park, in the mornings atop the knoll in the ring of trees.

A lot has happened since then.  I've moved to Charlotte.  I have students of my own.  I own a sharp sword - the first weapon I have ever owned - and I own it on my terms.  I've practiced with the langes messer and dagger, two weapons that I would never have thought I would be attracted to, and discovered that I really like one of them (the dagger) and really hate the other (the messer).  I've started learning the use of the sidesword, a weapon I've wanted to learn for as long as I've wanted to learn longsword, which is the first time I've tried to learn a weapon without the benefit of in-person instruction.

I've attended two major tournaments and two minor ones.  At one of the major ones I made it to the finals in the dagger tournament, I actually won a medal in a rapier tournament, and I made it to the eliminations in longsword.

Am I any good?

I don't really feel like it, to be honest.  There are others from AHS who have been practicing for as long as I have, or very shortly longer, who are better than I am - better in technique, better in cutting, better in sparring.  I suppose it is natural to compare myself to those of my peers whom I know to be the best.  As for my students, I am not as far ahead of them as I would like.

Am I better?


I have now executed cuts that I couldn't execute a year ago.  The progress hasn't been entirely forward, but it has been forward in the aggregate.  I understand the art better than I did a year ago.  Whereas a year ago I could more or less explain pretty much all of the hauptstücke, I can now just explain all but a few of them, at least in a much deeper way than I could a year ago.  And I understand the foundational concepts of the art better now too.  I no longer think in terms of tempi, the Italian concept that forms the basis of so much modern fencing theory, and instead think in terms of vor and nach, the Liechtenauerian concept that serves the same purpose.  I can exert pressure ... not well, perhaps, but much better than I could a year ago.  And I can feel pressure better than I could, which is just as important.

The reasons I fence have changed somewhat.  I started fencing as a thing for me - a corner of New York to make my own.  I needed that, to keep me from succumbing to depression.  I needed a tribe, and fencing gave me one.  I needed a reason to exercise, and fencing gave me one.

I still fence for those reasons.  The thing that keeps me eating well (well ... better than I otherwise would) and exercising is the need to do honor to my weapon.  Here in Charlotte most of my tribe are students.  And there are certainly times, even here with Thayet and Meshparjai, when I feel the weight crushing me down like one of Rodin's caryatids and I just need to feel Ruusaan's grip in my hands.

I also fence to teach.  I'm still a lawyer, but I can teach through my fencing.  It isn't really the same teaching peers as I think it would be teaching those younger, but it's still teaching.  It gives me a chance to work on curriculum and lesson design, as well as my presentation skills and pacing.  And this, as much as holding the sword in hand and hammering body and will to the demands of the art, helps to center me.

I am thirty-four now.  The five years will be up when I am thirty-seven - too old, in all likelihood, to ever be a truly top-tier fencer in the competitive world.  But I find that I remain determined to be a swordsman.  It has morphed from an exploration of force into its own thing - I must fence because I must.  I will be a swordsman.  I am a swordsman - I'm just not a good one.

Three years to go.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

An Tion Jate?

"The very formula, 'Naus means ship' is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.” - C.S. Lewis

An tion jate?  This is a question I ask myself a lot lately.  I in Mandalorian because it makes me think about them in a different way than if I ask in English.  I ask it because it means, "Is everything okay?"  And I am not okay.  I am sick.  The anxiety and depression, the "impaired executive function" - it's all back (I'm back on medication, but these things take a month or so to really kick in).  Everything is not okay.

I ask it because, without additional context, it also means, "Was everything okay?"  And I begin to wonder if perhaps it has not been okay for a long, long time.  I am better prepared this time, more aware of when parts of my mind shut down and better able to re-route around the dark sectors or at least tread water until the lights come back on.  One of the things I have learned that helps is to sing - to roar, the kind of singing that feels like a core workout, songs that are choked full of emotion, to thunder into the void.  And I remember ... this is not the first time I have felt that way.  I have always loved to roar (as my sophomore year dormmates can attest), but it has not always been out of desperation.  But it was out of desperation in New York, when I started attending Hillsong NYC because I needed that space to roar in, a cathedral of light and smoke and sound and spirit.  It was out of desperation in the worst times in California, when the smothering blanket of depression was so thick that I couldn't sing, even when I wanted to.  It was out of desperation as far back as law school, when I first created a playlist of Disney songs that I could thunder because it was the only way I could feel something - anything at all.  

And you know what?  It wasn't out of desperation any further back than that, that I can recall.

So I ask it because it also means, "Is everything good?"  And I wonder.  Maybe this profession is not good for me.  Certainly the sector of it in which I have worked almost my entire working life is not.  I need to face up to the fact that I am sick, and this kind of job is not good for someone with my condition.  I am not certainly it is good for anyone, to be honest, but perhaps I am being overly judgmental - or overly naive, which is sometimes just as good.

And I ask because when Meshparjai is sad, truly sad, I cradle her in my arms and stroke her hair and whisper, "An jate."  And asking this question makes me remember that it will be okay.  I think, "How long have I been sick like this?" and, armed with greater experience of my illness, I suspect that the answer is a good deal longer than you thought.  But there was a time when I was not sick, and there have been times when I was at least asymptomatic.  It can be okay again.  I can be okay again.

I ask because as much as the answer is no - nayc, an nu jate - the answer is also a faithful, defiant elek.  Yes.

No, everything is not good.  My sickness is not good.  But God is good, and God is above everything, and it will be okay.

A postscript digression: One of the things I have learned helps me keep it together when the lights go dim is fencing.  This is, of course, why I have bothered to emblazon my gear with the phoenix earth; it's a way of reminding me that this is one of my anchors, not just a hobby.  When I was making my sword pillows, Thayet jokingly reminded me not to forget to include embroidering a cheesy saying on them.  So I did, and it is cheesy, but it's also quite serious.  I embroidered them: Gotal'u an kebise evaar'la, from Revelations 21:5: "I make all things new."  But thanks to Mandalorian conjugation, without specifying the subject, it also means: "He makes all things new."  And he will.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gotal'u An Kebise Evaar'la

Now it is Christmas.

This is the first Christmas in a long time that I have spent away from my immediate family.  Certainly it is the first without Thayet or Meshparjai.  I did not go to Dickens Fair.  My house is empty and undecorated.  There are no presents here.  I may not be able to stay in Charlotte.  There has been little about this Advent that has seemed Christmas-y.

But Christmas is not about family, nor love, nor togetherness, nor cheer.  It is not about goodwill towards men.  Those are all good things, and worthy trappings for Christmas.  But what Christmas is - what the Black Pearl really is - is praise.

This is not a plea to keep the Christ in Christmas.  Even in its most traditionally religious incarnation, Christmas is already an abstract memorial of events and ideas that the Church finds significant.  If other people want to turn it into an abstract memorial of other events or ideas that they find significant, I shan't object; it doesn't diminish the sanctity of my own memorial.  But for me, what Christmas memorializes is the invasion, the return of the king ... the promise that I make all things new.

And while I love spending time at the holidays with my aliit (moreso, truth be told, than with my family in the traditional sense), and I love spreading Christmas cheer at Dickens, and I love spreading a sense of magic with decorations and presents, the one thing that Christmas really needs for me is a memorial of that epic moment, when the trap was laid for the great enemy and the powers of heaven rolled forward upon the territory of the prince of the air with all the thunder of the angels of the one whose thunder and trumpet terrified the people at Sinai, spearheaded all by the cry of a newborn.

I need the sense of remembering with others who are remembering the same thing, and are similarly moved.  It used to happen with Xenophon over Christmas carols at my parents' house.  Then I moved away, and some years it never happened.  Tonight it happened at St. Mark's Episcopal, filling that old church with carols and invoking the weight of generations past.  And at home after midnight, in this empty house with the lights off, thundering songs of praise.

I may, as it happens, be trading in my accustomed low church tradition for something somewhat more liturgical.  But I think that my cathedrals will always be made of thunder and smoke, light and shadow: full-throated worship roared to the heavens, a vocal salute.  Tonight I build one of those in this empty house, and the home is full.

And now it is Christmas.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Things I Find Troubling About the Brown Shooting

The St. Louis County prosecutor released an interview with Darren Wilson recently, in which Officer Wilson recounts his version of his encounter with Michael Brown.  As I expect anybody reading this knows, the grand jury returned no indictment of the man, and naturally, I accept that as a matter of state law that's the end of it.  But I nevertheless find myself troubled by the story recounted.  There are, of course, questions of systemic justice that the case raises or at least has made people think about, but this is not a post about those.  Even among those who see this as an exemplar of systemic injustice, I expect that many people who are fascinated by this sort of thing are at least in part fascinated by the question of what they would have done had they been in the defendant's position, and I admit that a goodly portion of my own fascination is inspired by just that line of thinking.  In short: what do I think about Wilson's story, and how does that better help me understand myself?

According to Wilson, here is what happened:
Wilson encountered Brown and his friend walking down the middle of the street, heading towards his car.  He drew up to them in his patrol car and asked, "Hey guys, why don't you walk on the sidewalk?"  One of the two demurred.  Wilson repeated his request, and the second told him, "Fuck what you have to say," and the two continued to walk past Wilson's vehicle.  Wilson backed up, I suppose to keep pace with them, began to open his door, and said, "Hey, come here."  One of the two (Brown, the interview seems to imply), said, "What the fuck are you gonna do?" and shut the door on Wilson before he could even get his leg out of the vehicle.  Wilson tried to push Brown back with his door, Brown said something that Wilson doesn't recall, and then began punching Wilson through the window, pressing the door shut with his body.
Brown bent down to enter the vehicle with his upper body while continuing to do something with his arms ("tryin' to get his arms out of my face and him from grabbin' me and everything else," in Wilson's words).  Brown paused his attack to hand his companion a pack of stolen cigarillos with his left hand, saying, "Here, take these," which afforded Wilson the opportunity to grab hold of Brown's right arm.  Brown then rounded on Wilson with a full punch from his left hand.  Wilson continued to hold Brown's arm with his left hand while attempting to use his right to draw something to defend himself with.  He didn't have a taser, couldn't reach his mace on his utility belt (and didn't want to use it at such close proximity anyway for fear that it would incapacitate him too), couldn't reach his flashlight in the bag on the passenger seat without leaning away from Brown and rooting through the bag, and so decided on his gun.  He drew his firearm, pointed it at Brown, and ordered him to stop or be shot.  Brown informed Wilson that he was "too much of a fuckin' pussy to shoot me," grabbed it over the top with one or two hands (Wilson doesn't recall), and twisted it around to point at Wilson's pelvic area, with his hand around Wilson's trigger finger, which was inside the trigger guard.
Wilson let go of Brown's arm with his left hand and used it to lever the gun back around towards Brown.  He tried to fire twice, but the gun didn't fire, presumably because Brown's hand was still on the slide.  He tried to fire again and the weapon discharged through the door, sending glass from his rolled-down window flying along with blood.  Brown rocked back and then forced his upper body into the car again, swinging and grabbing wildly at Wilson.  Wilson defended himself with his left hand and tried to fire through the door again.  The weapon clicked, so Wilson racked the slide and as he did so the weapon "just came up and shot again."  Brown fled, and Wilson exited the vehicle and shouted at him to stop and get on the ground.
Brown stopped, and with "the most intense aggressive face I've ever seen on a person" charged Wilson at the run, putting his hand under his shirt into his waistband.  Wilson ordered him to stop and get on the ground again, but Brown kept running towards him.  Wilson began to backpedal, fired "multiple" shots and repeated the order, and Brown continued to run, "hands" still in his waistband.  Wilson fired multiple shots again, at least one of which hit Brown in the face and caused him to pitch forward onto the ground a few feet from Wilson.  Brown had "made contact" with Wilson "multiple" times, and landed "at least two" "solid blows," resulting in a swollen right cheek and jaw and scratches on his back, neck, and shoulders.
 Now, I have to admit that this story does not strike me as especially credible.  But let's suppose that everything happened exactly as described.  What are we to make of this?

My ethics of violence boil down to two aphorisms:

  1. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  To he who strikes you on the [side of the] jaw, offer to him also the other (Jesus); and
  2. Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill them right back (Malcolm Reynolds).
The difference in verbs is important to me, and dictates what I believe to be the morally appropriate response.  The first (socking you on the jaw) is, in Natalian parlance, merely violence.  The second (trying to kill you) is a threat.

To unpack that a bit - as a Christian, I think that killing is bad.  This is not to say that it is always the wrong thing to do; I think that killing can be the right thing to do, despite being a bad thing to occur - and I think it remains a bad thing, even when it is the right thing to do.  Because killing is always bad (even when it is the right thing to do), it seems to me that the onus is on the prospective killer to decide whether it is warranted.

Christians have of course struggled with when it is appropriate to kill someone since almost before there were Christians.  My personal resolution of the dilemma is bound up in the distinction between violence and a threat.  I do not believe that Jesus intended for us to suffer every attack without resistance, and God seems to be perfectly okay with killing human beings under many circumstances.  The moral question for me boils down to what is actually being threatened.  Mere injury, or loss of honor or authority, does not warrant resistance.  If something more important is threatened, such as a life or a psyche, then resistance is warranted.

I don't believe in threats, and I don't believe in going into any kind of fight that you aren't prepared to finish by any means necessary.  So if resistance is warranted, death is on the table.  If it isn't worth killing over (if the altercation should escalate to that level), it isn't worth punching over.

How does all this apply to the Brown shooting?  I find myself troubled by the fact that Wilson drew his gun.  At the moment he made that decision, he had suffered back-talk, a punch to the face, and attempted grabs.  This is certainly offensive, but does it warrant killing?  I hesitate to say that being punched and grabbed on the street rises to the level of a threat, let alone when the attacker is awkwardly wedged through a car window.  I cannot help but notice that in Wilson's account, Brown only went for the gun after Wilson drew it - and then did so in a way that one normally associates with preventing an automatic from firing, and in fact did prevent it from firing twice, even after Wilson had regained some control over his weapon.  Is that a threat?  To be honest, I find it ambiguous.

I find it less ambiguous - somewhat, I admit, but significantly less - as to whether a large, wounded, apparently berserk teenager charging one is a threat.  I do not believe in reciprocal force.  Once an actual threat has been offered, I believe in ending it as decisively as possible.  I can buy classifying as a threat being charged by a kid with murder in his eyes, even if he does have to hold up his pants while charging.

But how did it get to that moment in the first place?  It is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that the escalation to lethal force came from Officer Wilson, after being offered no more provocation than being punched and unsuccessfully grabbed - in short, after being attacked, but not threatened.

It would be disrespectful to say that I would have done differently.  If that is what happened, though, it is difficult for me to say that it was right.

I do understand that what I am classifying as the morally correct way to deploy force is not the tactically correct way to deploy force.  If a person is close enough to strike you, after all, they are in all probability close enough to kill you before you can effectively resist.  Not only that, but your chances of being able to effectively resist are significantly diminished if you have first been struck, even by blows that are in themselves not actually threatening.  At the end of the day, I think that following Jesus sometimes requires one to do the tactically unsound thing in order to do the morally sound thing.

It's worth observing, though, that civilized society requires the same.  Imagine a society in which you can be justifiably killed for punching someone in a bar.  We all know instinctively that being punched in a bar is highly unlikely to be a prelude to homicide.  It's almost certainly about establishing dominance, not about rending body from soul.  But of course that's an assumption, and after all, one has been attacked by a person at a very dangerous range.  It would be safer to incapacitate them than to ignore it, or walk away.  And there have been and are times and places when society was much closer to that norm.  It was not, I feel confident in saying, an improvement.

I should emphasize that it is not the escalation per se that troubles me.  As I said, I don't believe in reciprocal force.  In fact, I affirmatively believe in unreciprocal force, which is why it does not particularly bother me that Brown was, at the time of his death, unarmed.  What troubles me is why Wilson, according to his own account, chose to escalate.  His account does not make it sound like Brown intended to kill him, or indeed was in any reasonable danger of doing so inadvertently, and yet Wilson threatened to kill him.  That is what troubles me.

I have heard from various parties variations of the sentiment that Brown deserved what he got, because he assaulted a police officer.  To this I feel it should be sufficient reply to ask why, if assaulting a police officer is sufficient cause to warrant death without a trial, no legislature or court has seen fit to articulate that doctrine.  We will search the law in vain to find the proposition that a police officer may lawfully kill another prior to receiving an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury that an objectively reasonable person would interpret as such, even the laws of self-defense.  And we know, of course, that not all assaults do constitute, to an objectively reasonable person, imminent threat of death or serious physical injury.  In this case, Brown was allegedly attempting to punch and grab Wilson through the window of a patrol car.  It is difficult for me to see how he could have caused Wilson's death or serious physical injury in that position, and if he could not have done so or done so only through a very improbable series of events, then he could not present Wilson with an imminent threat.  So again ... what was it, other than Wilson's subjective fear, that justified his drawing his weapon?

I find myself troubled.