I have held another person's life in my hands. A couple of times, if I am being honest; not always by design, but not always by result, either. Time, chance, and circumstance conspired to place me exactly in the moment where I could have taken a life.
But I didn't. In some instances, because I wasn't forced to; in others, because I did not have the authority to. That brings us to the crux of the matter and the title of this essay. Is there such a thing as the ethical application of violence?
Of course there is. Religious beliefs or personal morality notwithstanding, the use of violence when merited is one that I made peace with as a teen, but have reflected upon often as an emerging adult and further into adulthood. I am reflecting upon it now as a man in his middle age. I expect I will ruminate on the topic for as long as I continue to train in martial arts, whether with empty hand techniques or the various weapons that pique my curiosity when the opportunity arises.
This is one of the reasons why my threshold for techniques and training tangents is so low. One of the immediate thoughts that confronts me when I am learning something is "can I kill another human being with this skill" and the answer determines how long I am willing to entertain the training.
This isn't just about lethal force delivery options, either. Anyone can take a life using a knife or firearm. No, I am talking about something as ubiquitous as a punch or a kick--can either of those be deadly? Can I make them deadly?
The answer is usually yes, through volume or intensity--hit someone once, it might just be superficially damaging, but hit them in the face long enough and hard enough? You can definitely kill them.
This is the reality of martial arts but one that few trainees give consideration to. We look at the engagement criteria in our various disciplines and assume a certain amount of risk that is mitigated by equipment, rules, or what have you--we put a tremendous amount of faith into those elements to keep us from doing excessive harm or being harmed by those we share our training with.
But what if you want to harm someone? Then what?
Does your BJJ provide you with anything that would allow you to kill another person? Could you use your boxing to take a life if needed? Do you understand how a knife really works or do you just like the feel of it in your hand?
Because your training is only as good as its purpose. If your purpose is to do exercises that are ostensibly martial in nature but in a closed environment, then recognize that. Don't buy into the myth of "street versus sport" and other intellectual smokescreens. Remember that anything martial can be made deadly and, every once in a while, give due consideration to that fact.
Could I hold a choke long enough to take more than just consciousness? Yes. Could I hit someone hard enough to kill them? I believe so, yes. Am I comfortable with putting a blade into a person deep enough to find purchase in bones or organs? Most assuredly.
I might have to "cheat" in order to find the deadly force element of those arts that are meant for sport, but the potential is there. "Cheating" is contextual. There are definitely limits in sport and those have to be respected.
But if I train boxing for 30 years and someone comes at me in anger, whether I have made peace with the idea that one well-placed punch could kill that person could be the deciding factor in whether I survive a "street" encounter using a "sport" solution.
I am not, to be sure, talking about dim mak or some other nonsense. I mean a well-placed punch that drops a person who then fractures his skull on the sidewalk. Or a strike to the throat that breaks his airway. Intentional consequences or an unforeseen byproduct of your training?
I hope you answered the former. Intention is all; leave nothing to chance. It won't so much be a question of whether I "cheated" as it will be "was that an ethical application of violence?"
That is not a question to be asked in a melee. Ask it early, ponder it often, but not during a force-on-force moment. Your mind should be at peace in those situations so that, yes, you can apply violence ethically.