3 - Street Kobudo: The Ethics of Retaliation

Is it ever right to answer violence with violence? I'm talking about the violence on a personal scale, not the State-sponsored varieties of war or the realities of insurrection. Neither am I considering the violence one can experience by virtue of racism, intolerance, poverty, or any other social ill.

But even on a personal level, it is hard to define just what violence is answerable ethically. There is a lot of violence that one may experience that one does best to let slide. Where to draw the line? I believe it is that which (1) poses a threat of bodily harm, and (2) that which jeopardizes one's personal integrity. The second can be retaliated by a harsh word, civil action or attitude stance, although violence of this nature is a tricky one since people can exert violence towards one without even touching one with a feather. But let us leave number two aside for awhile and focus on number one: threat of bodily harm.

Notwithstanding his violent past. Kimo sensei was essentially a peaceful man, not given to the blustering of a "dojo sensei" devoid of street experience, those teachers whose only experience of violence was in a dojo or a tournament. On the one occasion that a neighbor complained rather hotly about the noise (his mother was very ill) and quite verbally abused Kimo, the sensei listened quietly, although his face was redder than a ripe tomato. It was close to the end of class and he asked the senior students to remain seated and accompany him in zazen. It was a long session where he asked us to repeat the chants he would utter. He thanked us afterwards. We left confused, knowing all too well that the neighbor was just a hair away from some very serious pain that did not take place. That is a number two.

Not all of us are Kimo. And not all situations are so easily diffused or afford the time to examine all options to retaliation. The street is one place where this proves to be all too true. You may just have milliseconds to decide whether verbal agression is not the foreplay to subsequent physical attack. But let's keep it simple. When is movement alone the preamble to attack?

One night as I walked a dark and deserted street with a woman friend as a shortcut to where we planned to sit on some steps, converse and drink wine, I spied two men on the sidewalk walking rapidly. One continued walking as I lost him behind a parked car, the other turned abruptly towards us, cutting between two parked cars. Maybe he just wanted to bum a cigarrette. I decided not to wait to see his intentions since I had lost sight of his partner. I walked towards him and christened his noggin with a thick bottle of wine. I heard the other one run away. I quickly took my friend by the arm and pulled her away. She had seen nothing, she was stunned. When later I explained she was very upset at what I did. None of the reasons I gave convinced her. I had committed an act of violence that in her view was unprovoked. In my view the person was approaching me rapidly and in silence on a dark street, not announcing his intentions, if any, and not taking into consideration that I was escorting a woman, which, chivalry aside, usually represents a liability.

Two mind sets at odds. Who was right? God knows. One lives by codes, and that guy, unknowingly or not, violated mine. Codes have to be followed regardless of the consequences, some good, some bad.

Time passes, things change, for the better or for the worse. I find that my code is of no consequence to anyone else but me. So I apply it sparingly, or try to spell it out beforehand. It is just that there isn't always time, violence happens in a blink.

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