When the trial of George Zimmerman, who was charged with murder (among other counts) in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, reached a crushing crescendo in the 24-hour news cycle earlier this month, I reacted the way most reasonable men would:
Wondering who the hell cares so much about a case in Florida, while there is a superstorm of more pressing legal issues quietly churning through the system that effect the whole country.
That's not to sound insensitive, considering a young life was lost, but in the grand scheme of things, the Zimmerman trial was a drop in a deleterious bucket.
Accordingly, I decided to ignore the media circus, until I saw the following testimony from the defendant's mixed martial arts (MMA) instructor, Adam Pollock:
If you don't have the 40 minutes to spare watching the testimony, Pollock describes Zimmerman as a "rank beginner" who had been training between two and three days a week for the last year, give or take a few months of hiatus.
"There is a difference between an accomplished athlete and someone who's there ... who's just not a physically accomplished individual," Pollock said, contrasting Zimmerman with a natural athlete.*
*Author's note: Earlier in the video, Pollock makes a hilarious attempt to explain basic mount escape maneuvers to the laypeople of the jury. It's unrelated to this article, but so amusing that it's worth a look.
Upon hearing this description of Zimmerman, and remembering a few select MMA students in my past so devoid of natural talent that they could not successfully escape a mount after a year of training, something suddenly became very clear to me.
Let's try to temporarily divorce the Zimmerman trial from the racial and political issues that had been married to it and look at the fatal shooting of Martin as a teachable moment for all martial arts and firearms enthusiasts who frequently invoke the all-power phrase:
Self-defense is a legal term that changes in meaning from state-to-state and is frequently misused by people trying to sell videos. For Zimmerman's case in Florida, starting a fight and losing it so badly that he felt in great physical danger is legal reason enough to use deadly force. In other words, Zimmerman is not a criminal. He's just an asshole. An asshole so big that some dumb teenager had to die to accommodate it.
He is exactly the kind of asshole who "self defense-centered instruction" often encourages a person to be.
Take a deep breath. I just said a lot of things in the above paragraph. Hold your comments, I'll get to each one.
First, Zimmerman started that fight. He didn't throw the first punch, but used the oldest trick in the self defense nut handbook to invoke violence without being technically responsible for it. Zimmerman identified a potentially aggressive situation and stayed with it when he had every reason not to, including a concealed weapon and advice from a police dispatcher to sit tight.
There is an often conjured self-defense scenario -- I've personally seen it described four times between online videos and seminars -- where you (because the point of these scenarios is to imagine it's you in them) walk into the side door of your apartment complex and notice some person on the stairwell whom you do not recognize.
Of course, because we're talking self defense martial arts, this shady character is always waiting to assault you and not just some otherwise normal guy who looks aggressive because he had to walk to the stairwell for a cigarette. From there, I've seen several different options of keeping distance, deploying a weapon, clinch work ... whatever. I've never seen anyone recommend that you -- the person who foresaw potential trouble in this scenario -- go around and use the front stairs.
Why should law-abiding citizens be inconvenienced by a possible criminal? Why shouldn't you be able to feel safe in your own home? Why should someone have to face death or grievous bodily harm so a law-abiding citizen can feel like a tough guy who has complete control over his circumstances?
If every stupid assumption this self defense scenario makes about a random suspicious character is correct -- if some scary dude really is the violent scum of the Earth and the victimized "you" in this story actually wins -- then someone's spouse/child/friend dies because you decided it was okay to Charles Bronson the bad guy who would have otherwise eventually gone home.
Let's move this concept to a more realistic self defense scenario.
I recently started working a second job as security in a place that sells alcohol. I learned two things about the job very quickly: One, it's much more like babysitting than it is like Road House. Two, a man can threaten to stab you and totally mean it. He can wait outside with the intent to assault you when you go to your car. He can make it so no one under the law or in public opinion will doubt your right to go outside and defend yourself against him. And, if you hang out and make him wait for 15 minutes, that same man will go home.
No one has to die because one dude is an angry drunk.
If a person recognizes a potential threat and walks into it, barring some crazy set of circumstances forces him to walk into it, that person was the one who started a fight. Just like Zimmerman started a fight when he followed what he believed to be a suspicious teenager when he already phoned the police and the 911 operator told him that they'd handle it.
I also said that Zimmerman was an asshole. And, further, the kind of asshole who the self defense sales pitch encourages. Hopefully, if I proved that Zimmerman indeed started that fight, the other two points require a little less explanation.
But, let's take point one.
Zimmerman is in an asshole. He's the kind of asshole who doesn't understand statistics because he apparently doesn't feel safe in his low-crime gated community unless he's carrying a gun and participating in a neighborhood watch. He's the kind of asshole who is insecure, maybe because he doesn't understand statistics, maybe because he is athletically hopeless as his MMA instructor said.
That means he has to do things like exercise the Second Amendment to the U.S. constitution, train MMA, join the neighborhood watch and follow suspicious-looking characters when he was told not to all to bolster his own "sense of agency."
And he's the kind of asshole who gets people killed.
But, I glossed over that "sense of agency" part. That's what's being sold by people who make specialty holsters, hidden knives and "street defense martial systems." You get guys like Zimmerman who don't feel safe, who don't feel in control, who don't feel potent, and you sell those empty feelings to them.
Afraid that every suspicious character you spot is going to jump you in a stairwell, stab you on your way to your car or case your property for a robbery? Feel less in control of your life because you have to go around those people? Because it reminds you of when you couldn't fight back against the more athletic kids in school so you just had to shut up and take it?
Well, here's a knife. Here's a gun. Here's a foolproof, fear no man fighting system. Go take the control back!
But, the point of control is bring decency. Self defense is a legal concept meant to allow you to defend your own life and property without reprisal in the increasingly unlikely event* that you are caught in an unavoidable violent situation.
*Author's note: Violent crime has been steadily going down for over a decade.
There's nothing decent about giving a fight to a dude in a stairwell just because he's looking for one. There's nothing decent about smashing an angry drunk against the sidewalk who may be fine when he sobers up just because he has it coming at the time. And there's nothing decent about following some 17 year old until he feels threatened enough to fight you -- like most 17 year olds who are filled with testosterone and devoid of practical experience might -- then gunning him down when he starts kicking your ass.
A long time ago (and thanks for sticking with me), I promised a teachable moment for MMA and gun enthusiasts. Here it is:
If you're pursuing these things because they are awesome, I agree. If you are pursuing these things because you feel like you want to defend yourself, know what that concept means. Know what real threats are versus your insecurities and always be painfully aware of how your insecurities can create real threats.
And, please, if you find yourself walking through a neighborhood at night and you see some suspicious character following you, be smart. If you manage to lose him, but he's still coming around the corner so you jump him because you feel your endanger, never lose track of his hands.
That's because even if you have him mounted and are kicking his ass, he might have a gun, and you could wind up dead, while he walks free.