Spectrum of Engagement

I came to work just a little early on a Friday morning and did some small tasks to get my brain warmed up. Before I’d really started my day we were told to go into lockdown. Two hours later the SWAT team came to evacuate us. No evidence of a gunman was found but the police weren’t taking any chances. As I filed passed one of the SWAT team members I shuddered at the sight of his submachine gun. I do not want to be that close to such a weapon ever again. I fixated on that submachine gun during the adrenaline crash I experienced that evening.

The next day a sensei (karate instructor) told me about a martial artist who worked in airport security. This other martial artist was threatened while on the job. He begged, “Please, sir, don’t do this.” When the aggressor escalated the situation the martial artist defended himself and sent the aggressor to the hospital. He had given the attacker a chance to disengage but the attacker didn’t take it.

While listening to this story I suddenly realized why I didn’t like the SWAT team’s submachine guns. Having the power of near-instant death that is launched from a considerable distance away from your enemy means you can very easily choose not to give the enemy a chance to walk away. In many situations this is a very good thing. But in each of the situations I’ve actually been in if I’d had such a weapon and if I’d discharged it I’d be sitting in prison right now. To me, the submachine gun represents a level of power that I hope I never need. So it’s not so much the cold metal thing itself that bothered me – it’s more that I was disturbed by the fact that I’d been in a serious situation where having such weapons handy was necessary.

I prefer having a spectrum of engagement over needing the power of instantly killing from a distance. Here are five levels that I see along the spectrum:

1) I don’t know about you but I usually can avoid being in a bad situation in the first place. Not always, but usually. For instance it’s very easy for me to choose not to be at a bar in a sketchy part of town at two in the morning.

2) If possible walk or run away

3) Try to talk. “Yeah, having no money isn’t much fun, right?” “Who hurt you? Someone must have hurt you for you to be so full of anger – was it your mother?” Or, if tactically necessary, say something bizarre in order to cause momentary confusion – for instance, “Hey, do you smell ice cream?”

4) Defend and run

5) Maim and run

6) Kill

At levels 2 through 5 the aggressor has the choice to disengage. Call me soft, call me a hippie, call me whatever you like – I don’t think there’s any shame in giving someone a chance to stop walking the wrong path. Of course there’s no time for that in a war or in a mass shooting. But if you’re only at levels 2 or 3 with someone there’s no justification for lethal force.

Here’s a very human paradox I found within myself in the days after the lockdown incident. I definitely have some reservations about killing someone with an instant spray of bullets but I have no problem with disabling or even killing an attacker at close quarters. Most of the bunkai (application of movements from forms) I’ve been taught involves being very up close and personal with your attacker. Close enough to hear and feel exactly how you’re breaking someone’s body. Surely that’s more gruesome than dealing death from a distance? On one level – yes, absolutely it is a horrible, ghastly thing. So why am I not squeamish about close-quarter fighting? It’s more than just my training. If an attacker is that close to me  the attacker has crossed a clear and definite boundary. It’s realistic for me to conclude that my life is in danger. Of course I can also choose to step into my attacker’s space – but I will do so only if that is my best option for saving my life or the life of another.

Taken by a colleague outside our office door

As the grand-daughter of a World War II veteran I do understand there is a time and a place where weapons like submachine guns are appropriate. But I have no desire to own such a weapon nor do I think they’re “cool.” My grandfather talked to me about what it means to take a human life. At first I didn’t understand my revulsion at seeing such a powerful weapon at close quarters – especially when I’m trained in an art that, let’s face it, is designed for levels of violence from mild to lethal at distances from the reach of one’s leg to grappling. I had a lot to think about and analyze after I saw that SWAT team member’s submachine gun. What it boils down to is I don’t like how easy it is to take shortcuts when one is in possession of a submachine gun – to go from harmless to lethal in a split second without stopping to analyze whether or not such force is merited. Again, there’s a time and a place for dealing instant death. But my preference is to be able to stop conflict at any point along my spectrum of engagement.

P. S. – A book that has helped me to understand Level 3 (talking) on my spectrum of engagement is _Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication_ by Rory Miller

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

4 thoughts on “Spectrum of Engagement”

  1. Hi Joelle, sorry to hear that you’ve been through such a sobering experience; but then it’s given you rich food for thought at any rate. There are some nice aphorisms around which relate to what you’re saying, e.g.

    “Learn more ways to preserve rather than destroy;
    Avoid rather than check;
    Check rather than hurt;
    Hurt rather than maim;
    Maim rather then kill;
    All life is precious nor can it be replaced.”

    and Wonder Woman’s own code 😉

    “Don’t kill if you can wound, don’t wound if you can subdue, don’t subdue if you can pacify, and don’t raise your hand at all until you’ve first extended it.”

    take care and thanks for sharing your experience with us . . . Kx

  2. I agree with your spectrum. Nevertheless, as “kill” is one of the options I wouldn’t consider you too soft. 🙂

    #3 I’d write “de-escalate through talk”or something like this.

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