On Violence: Accepting What I Could (and Couldn’t) Have Done

As the tens of readers of this blog are no doubt sick of being reminded, I was the victim of a violent assault about a year ago in Washington, DC. It’s impossible for me to give you any meaningful explanation of the psychological aftermath of such an event in any brief form. But one particular mental scar that I presume is common among victims of violence is the nagging question of what I could have done differently. Could I have avoided it? Did I bring it upon myself?

Perhaps most resonating and sensitive to me as a male is whether I could have fought back.

Somewhere down this way, the scene of the crime.

It’s an absurd question, really, because I know that I could not have. I was snuck up on from behind and hit extremely hard on the back of my head, which knocked me straight to the ground, after which I was pummeled mercilessly by two assailants whose faces I never saw. My neocortex knows there was nothing to be done but survive. My lizard brain, and a small handful of males in my life who I presume are well-meaning, tell me otherwise.

Hero-of-the-blog Sam Harris recently wrote an incredible essay on our responses to and preparations for violence, and as he does in all other subjects which he tackles, he offers stark, clear warnings and advice. The theme? “True self-defense is based not on techniques but on principles.”

Harris mainly focuses on preventable violence, or situations in which there are options (whether to follow the instructions to get in one’s car from a parking lot mugger, for example). But in a paragraph relevant to my own story, he reminds me to shut out the voices of macho egotism espoused by my self-critical R-complex and some “traditional” males in my life, some of whom have suggested that had I only been trained in martial arts, I could have neutralized the attack (with my own emphasis):

Herein lies a crucial distinction between traditional martial arts and realistic self-defense: Most martial artists train for a “fight.” Opponents assume ready stances, just out of each other’s range, and then practice various techniques or spar (engage in controlled fighting). This does not simulate real violence. It doesn’t prepare you to respond effectively to a sudden attack, in which you have been hit before you even knew you were threatened, and it doesn’t teach you to strike preemptively,without telegraphing your moves, once you have determined that an attack is imminent.

No one has spelled this out for me so clearly as Harris has, and I must say, it gives me some comfort, though I imagine many men would dismiss this in a huff.

I was also glad to read some of what Harris had to say about not allowing yourself to be placed in a vulnerable position in the first place:

You are under no obligation, for instance, to give a stranger who has rung your doorbell, or decided to stand unusually close to you on the street, the benefit of the doubt. If a man who makes you uncomfortable steps onto an elevator with you, step off. If a man approaches you while you are sitting in your car and something about him doesn’t seem right, you don’t need to roll down your window and have a conversation. Victims of crime often sense that something is wrong in the first moments of encountering their attackers but feel too socially inhibited to create the necessary distance and escape.

At my current retail workplace, I have begun to practice this with less and less feeling of apology. When a person enters the store and immediately approaches me too closely, I make a broad step back to create distance and frankly also to communicate that this degree of physical nearness is unnecessary (we can talk about what they need without being close enough to hug) and simply not going to be an option. In other words, in case their intentions are not benign, I’m not going to give them the advantage of proximity.

I may be behaving in a paranoid manner, and I accept that. But after what I’ve gone through, I just don’t see a reason to give everyone, as Harris says, the benefit if the doubt. I’m not a dick about it (I hope), but I’m not willing any longer to be a patsy either.

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