The Zimmerman trial captivated the world this summer. Unfortunately, I think that the captivation was for the wrong reasons, obscuring larger issues that should have been addressed. As a martial arts teacher, the more important issues that were not discussed, lie at the heart of what we do, and why we do it. To me, Mr. Zimmerman had no obligation or necessity to leave his vehicle, particularly after he was told that the police were on their way, and he was advised to stay in his vehicle. He intentionally left his residence with a concealed, deadly weapon. He did not carry a tactical light, mace or pepper spray, night stick, edged weapon, etc.. The item that he chose to carry was one that had the greatest degree of lethality associated with it. A civilian untrained in self-defense, chose to leave his vehicle to confront someone, after being advised NOT to do so, while carrying a lethal weapon. That, in and of itself, should have negated any legitimate claim of self-defense. Unfortunately, the way in which the Florida law was written, allowed for him to do so and later claim self-defense. Whereas he might have legally gotten away with a homicide, morally he will pay that price for the rest of his living days.
The option of choices in how a person can respond to violence, create the necessity for moral decision-making. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The simple choice of who lives and who dies in a conflict creates little ambiguity in the mind of a person seeking to defend him/herself and live another day. Lessening the number of responses, increases the likelihood of a person choosing quicker, and thereby increasing the survival odds. Increasing the number of choices provides a person with more alternative actions, while possible decreasing the survival odds when the necessity of choosing quickly and correctly is vital to surviving a violent encounter.
I cannot emphasize enough the value of practicing Aikido, which directly and deliberately teaches the least violent outcomes to addressing violent encounters. I have also been very deliberate in telling people that training in a martial art should not be primarily for learning how to defend yourself as quickly as possible. I have in fact told people that the quickest way to learn how to defend yourself is to get proper training in the use of some types of firearm. For example, shotguns are relatively easy to learn how to use and highly lethal. Traditional Japanese martial arts are stylized, kata-based arts that address physical violence. This is not the most efficient way to teach somebody how to respond to violence. I think that this is a very good thing.
Realistically, the odds of being physically assaulted is very, very low for most people. Most people do not need to learn a technique to use while walking home one hour later. The formal training in Aikido provides ample time and opportunity for a person to slowly begin to address the issues of personal vulnerability, personal safety, and self-defense. These are heavy topics that bring up a lot of issues in all of us. A good teacher allows these issues to be addressed as they arise in a safe and secure manner. There are almost always multiple layers to each of these issues. As a person works through one level of an issue, the next level seems to slowly emerge for the student. The connecting theme to all of these issues is the precious, temporal nature of life. I want the students to gain a very deep appreciation for one’s own life and the lives of those who are close to them. A person should think deeply about these things, if they are afforded the opportunity to, when making a decision as to whether a person should place himself/herself in harm’s way. With good training, should come the awareness that many situations should be walked away from. Life is simply too short and precious to place on the line for all of the knucklehead out there trying to instigate problems. Worse than that, is placing one’s self in harms way as a way of proving to one’s self how “secure” and “tough” he/she is in a futile, existential attempt to address the inescapable fragility of life.
Aikido training should teach sensitivity to one’s own experiences and to the world around us. Many times, we “feel” something is not right and walk into a situation, ignoring the inner warning sirens going off inside of us. We need to not only be acutely aware of the world around us, but we need to listen to our “gut” when something does not feel right. If you can leave a situation that does not feel right, then do so. Do we really need to be both aware and seemingly invulnerable? Too many times, people tempt fate to show how tough they think they are to themselves. Being “tough” is a useless classification and even worse, a bad last saying on a tomb stone. Being alive and enjoying life is what matters most.
Aikido training should encompass the teaching of a wide variety of outcomes to our techniques. That means from the most innocuous, to the most lethal, and everything in between. Our training should provide us with a wealth of possible ways of responding to violence. There are some teachers who like to live within the rarefied, idealized world in which the sole aim is to peacefully resolve everything. That is a dangerous fantasy to try and enact in all situations. Students who are only taught innocuous techniques to unrealistic attacks are ill-prepared to genuinely address real physical violence. Those same students are also typically deluded into believing that they are capable of handling physical violence. The more tools one has, the more options avail themselves. That does mean that we have to take some time and make a decision. If you are not aware, or ignore that internal warning sign, you might not have the time to think through options. It is very rare that you will be blind-sided and assaulted with no prior clues. When you are in the middle of a situation, you do not have time to think. Your training should kick in and if you are trained properly, you will likely respond with a level of technique that appropriately matches the situation that you are confronting.
If we have been training seriously, for a significant amount of time, we should have the sensitivity, awareness and capacity to respond to a situation so as to best insure that we survive the outcome. This also enables us the opportunity to dwell in the realm of moral decision-making. We have the right to live our lives peacefully. We have the right to protect our own lives and the lives of those we love. The decisions that we make in exercising these rights involve moral choices. The taking of another person’s life is no small matter. Simply spend time talking to people who have had to do so, and see how those experiences have forever altered and shaped their lives. If we have the opportunity to exit safely from a situation so that no one is harmed, then that is the most moral of choices. Defending one’s wallet, car, necklace, etc. are legitimate choices, but with those choices, comes the possible horrible outcome for one or more people. Are you really ready to live with that? Are you really ready to put your life on the line for what….?
I do believe that Mr. Zimmerman’s idealized motives were in the right place. His choices reflected inadequate maturity, training, personal responsibility and decision-making. At the end of the day, we cannot bring back the life of an innocent teenager who died as a direct result of Mr. Zimmerman’s poor judgement. At the end of the day, Mr. Zimmerman cannot redo decisions that I am sure he regrets every single day. This was not an issue of good vs evil, but was an issue of the moral implications associated with Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman’s actions. Everybody involved has suffered loss that never should have happened. I can only hope that we step back and reflect on the issues discussed so that we can learn from this tragic event. Our training can provide us with valuable skills sets and abilities. I hope that we all use them to preserve life in the best manner possible for most people possible. This demands from us, the attention to, and the making of moral decisions. It is better to spend safe time thinking this through now, rather than other alternatives. Our training is to preserve life, not waste it.
Marc Abrams Sensei
(Original blog post may be found here