“Kick it out,” said the voice from behind me; I waved back over my shoulder, not looking – this was another of the pan-handlers that worked Saint Paul Street in Baltimore. It was fall, 1993, and I was walking home from Harborplace downtown, with thenwife. The Saint Paul Street bridge over the Jones Falls Expressway, where we were, was usually whipped with wind and we had our hands jammed each in the pockets of our motorcycle jackets and were walking along, hunched over, probably talking about something.
The guy behind us said, “Kick it out,” again, louder, then trotted around in front of us, blocking our path. As he did so, he raised his sweatshirt and showed us the gun stuck in the front of his pants. It looked like a cheap .357 magnum knock-off but the important part is that I’ve seen what those do to people, and it felt like someone had put a garden hose of cold water up my ass and turned it on, full. You know how they say “weak in the knees”? That’s exactly the feeling. I realized in an adrenaline-fueled flash that we were being mugged and immediately started talking, “OK, I have some money in my wallet. I’m just going to take it out and hand you the bills; the other stuff in my wallet isn’t worth anything to you. OK?” I got my wallet out, held it open, showed that I had grabbed the wad of bills from the back, about $60, and handed them over left-handed. Then, he trotted off to the end of the bridge and vanished between a few of the buildings. It was all over so fast I didn’t have much time to think and later, when I realized that he might have just shot me in the back when I made my hand-wave of dismissal – I’d have been unaware of anything until I was blown away – and his lack of effective communication skills would have been entirely my problem. Dying or being maimed for $60 is pathetic. Then, I had to sit down and cry for a while. After that, we crossed North Avenue and went west, off our usual track, to the coffee shop where the cops used to sit, and talked to the police. The guy in the cruiser told us that the bridge marks the line between two precincts and we weren’t his problem but he helpfully offered to call for a car from the other precinct, if we didn’t mind waiting.
Like I said, I didn’t have a lot of time to think on the bridge, but one of the things I was able to figure out and focused on was that thenwife usually carried a lot more cash than I did, and I wanted to keep our mugger focused on me. I also slightly moved when I got my wallet, to interpose myself between us, not that it would have helped against a .357, she’d have just been splashed with bits of former Marcus. I also had my Vietnam-era Gerber MKI in the inner pocket of my jacket, handle down as I used to carry it, and it occurred to me at great length and detail that the expression “bringing a knife to a gun-fight” embeds some profound truths. I was more prepared to beg piteously than to go for the knife and try to fight.
That was the third time in my life that I had been on the wrong end of a loaded gun. The second time was at my first apartment in Parkview Gardens in a suburb of Washington, when I stepped out to talk to a man who was beating up a woman on the grass verge outside my building. I had my katana in its scabbard, held loosely and ready, but didn’t make it obvious what I was holding, and said, “hey man, you can’t do that. Please stop, someone’s gonna get hurt.” He yelled at me, and she started to crawl off between two parked cars. I stepped back and prepared to draw and cut him down and he, clearly drunk, wasn’t processing an encounter on two fronts and walked off in a huff. I didn’t realize that I had just met the couple who lived upstairs from me, until the next day when there was a knock on my door and I opened it and the same guy stuck a gun under my chin and asked me if I felt so smart now? I said, “if you don’t hurt me I promise I’ll move out of here as soon as I can find another place.” He shoved me back into my apartment and huffed off and I broke my lease that afternoon. That happened in the summer of 1986. It was the first time I brought a knife to a gun-fight and I know that sensei would have chided me for letting him inside my defensive range. But, seriously, there were important lessons in the encounter and they’re highly relevant to forming my later attitudes.
The first time I stared down a loaded gun was the most frustrating and induced a lot of intellectual dread. I was in basic training, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, 1983, on the rifle range sitting with a few other guys from my platoon, with my M-16 in pieces on some paper towels, cleaning sand out of the action. Fort Dix is made of sand and the M-16’s pathetically designed action is a machine for ingesting and jamming on sand, dust, or bad ideas. I never could understand why anyone thought it was a battle-worthy rifle. Anyhow, one of the guys in my platoon, Brooks, G., was a tough-ass oil rigger from Alaska who had lost his job for fighting too much and joined the army. Brooks liked to mess with people for his own entertainment, which he wasn’t really intellectually cut out for, but he knew his tools. Brooks asked me casually, “you’re an atheist, right?” and when I said “yes” he pushed a loaded clip into his rifle, dropped the bolt, rotated the fire selector to full automatic, and pointed it in my face. Then, he said, “don’t talk that shit around here.” I was utterly gobsmacked – there were other guys watching this, and there were always cadre around, but nobody seemed to notice what was going on. It was a shocking moment of complete disempowerment, my rifle in pieces, his fully assembled and loaded, and we were both sitting cross-legged and I was a total sitting duck. Not that I could have done anything to Brooks, whose muscles had muscles of their own. So I said, “I believe whatever you tell me to believe, Brooks” and he made some dominant muttering noises and got up and walked off. My feeling was that I had been totally let down by the cadre (who were supposed to be watching out for exactly that kind of thing) and the rest of the guys in my platoon, who watched it all happen. Nobody ever said a thing to me about it. So, I had a gun at a gun-fight but I guess that Bonaparte’s military aphorism for that situation would be “never field-strip your rifle in a gun-fight.” My problem was that I had no idea I was in a gun-fight until it was over!
When I moved out to the farm in Pennsylvania, I had problems with some of the locals, who felt that my acreage was their ATV playground. One time, I was telling some guys on an ATV to fuck off my land, when one of them started ostentatiously cocking a .45. I quietly got back in my truck and drove off. The state police came later, and said, “what do you expect us to do?” and “you’re not from around here, are you?” Again, the “good guys with guns” appeared much too late and were ineffective. I began to realize that guns are actually a piss-poor tool for self-defense. Cops are decidedly worse – you may as well pray for divine intervention – but if you’re in a tense situation with another person who has a gun, the only weapon you’ve got is your wits and those are going to fail some day if you keep getting in that kind of situation.
At my job at Trusted Information Systems, 1990-1994, there was a certified Gun Nut and Self Defense Aficionado, Bob P., who I shared a divided office with. Bob had a carry permit, kept a gun in his car (a great big .44 Colt Python) and would often talk about how he had 2 shotguns hidden near the doors of his house, so he could defend himself. By then I was cautious around people with guns, so I didn’t troll him, but I did ask what he expected, a full-on communist assault or something? Then, he said some really racist stuff that shocked me and I didn’t report it to human resources because he was not fully hinged and I had the experience with intervening in the beating earlier and I just wanted to be left alone. But listening to Bob go on and on about how he needed to defend himself, I kept thinking “against, what?” Then a few years later I went to visit photographer and gun nut Oleg Volk down in Nashville (I was in Nashville for a USENIX) and I got to see what a real Gun Nut(tm) is like. Oleg had loaded firearms everywhere in his house. Bob P. used to talk about the shotgun by the door – Oleg had a Franchi SPAS-12 behind the door, loaded with slugs. Oleg’s a nice young man and to my knowledge has never killed anyone, nor has his house ever been assaulted by the small army he is prepared to fight, so I asked him, “why all the guns, Oleg?” and he looked at me and said, “we are Russian jews.” And, honestly, I accepted and still accept that as a sort of explanation.
After my various run-ins with ATVers, I had plenty of time to think about guns for self-defense, and I had a shocking number of otherwise sane people tell me I should take a gun with me when I go to chase hunters and ATVers off my land. In fact, in Pennsylvania, there is a “stand your ground” law which says you can defend yourself with lethal force if you are on your property or in your car and someone threatens you credibly with violence. I actually asked the state police (one of the times they came to take a report about ATV trespassers, and do nothing) if that meant I could roll window down and blaze away at ATVers and claim they were scary? “Please, just don’t.” was the best the Pennsylvania State Police could manage.
And then there was the guy I pissed off online. I got some emails, threatening to come up here and “sort you out.” I didn’t take them seriously, but finally replied, “well, great. Schedule it with my secretary and come on up, but please be on time because if I spend all night lying out with my sniper rifle and you’re late, I’m going to be grumpy.” That also made me think a lot more about guns for self-defense. I realized that, basically, they are useless except in very narrow circumstances and worst of all you don’t know when those narrow circumstances are happening until too late. That is how I figured out the essence of Iaido (the Japanese martial art of drawing and cutting with the sword) – my sensei used to lecture us that the student is always ready to defend themself, and that the principle of the art is to be fast enough to get inside the attacker’s movement and defeat them anyhow. In other words, the attacker draws first, or moves their hand to the grip of the sword and begins to draw, and you’re so fast you cut them before they can complete their movement. I realized, after some thinking, that this is an absurd conceit: nobody in their right mind is going to stand and risk being cut by a katana if they can get “the drop” on an opponent and cut them when they are not ready to defend. In other words, Iaido is a sort of philosophical hack that allows the samurai to claim self-defense while actually being the aggressor. I realize, now, that that is an essential of state-craft, too: witness plucky little Israel that keeps launching devastatingly overpowered attacks while claiming that they were threatened. It’s ridiculous. And it’s the same thing with guns for self-defense: my proposal to defend my front door with a sniper rifle from 300 yards away was similar to Israel’s foreign policy – you show up on my doorstep to yell at me, and are vaporized and never know what happened. I was not serious about the sniper rifle but it did make me wonder at the large number of Americans who own such things claiming self-defense. How do you defend yourself by shooting someone by surprise from 300 yards away? I’m skeptical.
The deadliest weapon I have is my Chevy Tahoe 4×4 (seriously, I need it for the snow we still get out here, it’s a good farm truck) if the engine is running, it can transform from helpful transportation into a manifestation of death in an instant. Who needs a gun when you’re sitting in a tank?
As I continued to clarify my thoughts, to my satisfaction, on this matter, this is where I got: you have to decide if you want to be a dangerous person. The samurai who is always ready to draw a sword and cut someone down, is a dangerous person. Doc Holliday was a dangerous person. A lot of NYPD are dangerous people: they will switch from being the friendly-seeming person you ask directions from, to the guy who just strangled you to death, at a moment’s notice. The only way to defend yourself against a dangerous person is to be a more dangerous person. If I want to fantasize that someone’s going to come out here and shoot me, as I am spotlit against my office window, then I have two choices: be outside in the dark walking the perimeter on sniper patrol, or hope that they make it painless. The kind of person who really wants to kill you is the kind of person who’ll sit outside your window and shoot you, and the only way to prevent that is to live every second of your life in a state combining fear and readiness. And, inevitably, you’ll shoot the mailman if you live in that state because you’re also a fraction of a second away from a mistake at any moment. I liked Oleg Volk, but I wouldn’t want to knock on his door at 2:00am because I’d had a car accident and needed help – even though he’s a nice guy, a gun nut is a fractional second of a mistake from becoming life-threatening. That’s also why I don’t think I’d ever walk up to an NYPD cop and ask for directions, again – I just want to get those armed goons off the streets, and I have a GPS app on my smartphone. Dangerous people, and this is an important point, are dangerous to both sides because they’re as likely to light the powder-train that blows up their own side as the other.
I came to the conclusion that guns are only useful when you know you’re on your way to a gun-fight, which is a pretty straightforward way of saying that you plan to start a gun-fight. Because, otherwise, you’d be an idiot. And, if your opponents are standing in a cluster with their “open carry” ARs on their shoulders, you should either a) not be there or b) drop mortar rounds on them from 1000 meters away, then send some guys in light AFVs to machine-gun the wounded. If you know you’re on the way to a gun-fight, then bring it all to bear. Otherwise, don’t bother because it’s just going to clutter up your battlefield consciousness at a crucial time – like my Gerber MKI did – I was aware I had a knife but I put it out of my mind quickly and I’m glad I did.
And that’s why I have a problem with guys like Bernie Goetz and Kyle Rittenhouse and all of NYPD and the other gun nuts who are parading their hardware: they’re either poseurs (i.e.: jackasses) or they are dangerous people – and if they are dangerous people, they ought to be taken off the streets because nobody on either side wants a dangerous person walking around. I hate to make a movie reference but I have to hand huge props to Val Kilmer for his portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone – Holliday by Kilmer is a complete nihilist and a dangerous person par excellence because he really, truly, does not care what happens to him, and he’s fast with a gun and part of not caring means not counting consequences, either. And that, my friends, is why I discount a lot of the “open carry” crowd – if they were really dangerous people, they’d be an actual death squad. But they’re just a bunch of slobs trying to work eachother up to the point they managed to work Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was a dangerous person, too, but in a singularly pathetic way. He fell on his ass and I wonder if his embarrassment for falling on his ass is why he really pulled the trigger. None of these people have any understanding of strategy or the lesson of the samurai, which is to care about outcomes but not for oneself. That’s why the samurai were dangerous: picture a whole bunch of Doc Hollidays trying to sort out who’s the biggest nihilist in the room.
There is a scene in Sword of Doom that always comes to me when I think of this [if you haven’t seen it, do!] in which a sword-master, played perfectly by Toshiro Mifune, is ambushed by some thugs who were trying to assassinate a politician. They got the wrong palanquin and instead of killing a helpless bureaucrat, about 20 swordsmen find themselves attacking The Angel of Death. The sword-master is furious – not because they threatened him, because they never were a danger to him – but because they made him kill when he didn’t want to. That really pisses him off. It’s interesting, because there are other elements of the story I don’t want to spoil, but it’s a sort of an extended exploration of the question of what a dangerous person is. The character played by Mifune is, in fact, one of the rare people who spends his every waking moment prepared for a l’outrance struggle. It’s his job to be a dangerous person and he does it well. In that sense he’s safe because unlike Doc Holliday or an NYPD cop, he is constrained by his excellence and deadliness and knows it’s not worthy for him to go picking on lower-level NPCs.
And that’s where I wind up: I don’t respect Rittenhouse, NYPD, or Goetz because they demonstrated their power against low-level NPCs and didn’t really put their money where their mouth is. If the “open carry” proto-fascists really think they are going to take on the US Army, why aren’t they planting IEDs right now? It’s because they’re chickenshit mouth-breather internet trolls who can afford $1000 for an AR-15 but are not, actually, dangerous people.
The big problem, for civilization, is to help the dangerous people keep from mistaking the fear in our eyes for admiration. But, ironically, when they feel that we admire them then suddenly they have something to lose, and are incrementally less dangerous.
Now, I have to clarify one thing. I do not, for a moment, believe that the samurai were anything like is portrayed in film. They were mostly military bureaucrats and functionaries. Some of them were very dangerous, but mostly they just wanted to live and party and drink and dance and do all the things people try to do. In other words, they had a lot to live for. But the ideology of bushido is complex and can be very damaging, just ask the Japanese who lived through WWII. It’s a fascinating topic and, if you are interested in taking a deep breath of samurai culture, I would recommend:
- When the last sword is drawn
- Sword of Doom
Harakiri is probably the most interesting – it’s an extended rumination about what happens when a cultural artifact winds up slamming into a truly dangerous person who has nothing left to lose. When the last sword is drawn is a more complicated and a truly beautiful film about the death of one era and what happens to dangerous people when the era that created them comes to an end. In that sense it’s reminiscent of The Shootist. We all know what happens to dangerous people when their era ends – it’s almost always not pretty. The death of Doc Holliday in Tombstone, coughing to death in a sanitarium, is a perfect coda to that topic.
We got post leave during basic, and that meant you could go wherever you wanted on post and that included the bowling alley where there was cheap government-subsidized beer. Brooks went and got beastly drunk. That evening they called formation for a head-count and Brooks fell down then got back up. One of our sergeants, Billy White, a former Georgia prison guard who had fought in Vietnam and had killed a lot of people, told Brooks to fall out and sleep it off. Brooks said, “fuck you.” We were all aghast waiting to see what happened. Sgt White walked over and said, “what did you say? I couldn’t hear you” (trying to give Brooks an out) and Brooks repeated himself, louder, then tried to swing on Sgt White. We all heard a kind of meaty “POP” and Brooks went cartwheeling through the air and crumpled in a heap. Sgt White had hit him so hard and fast I don’t think any of us saw it, but Brooks didn’t get back up. One of the other cadre went over and hauled Brooks to his feet and dead-walked him off toward the infirmary. We never saw Brooks again. I didn’t miss him.