Whether you think little or a lot about self-defense, you can live a better life when you consider self-defense from two perspectives: the practical and the legal. The different schools of self-defense training agree on many things. Similarly, the law of self-defense agrees in many ways across jurisdictions, cultures, even history. And though practical self-defense training (how to do it) and the law of self-defense seem to be quite different perspectives, they share much in common.
Whether a legal defense of self-defense is accepted will depend partly upon what people believe the defendant’s situation was at the time – a totality of the circumstances. Inevitably jurors, judges, all of us will compare what we believe the person being judged did, with what we imagine we would have done in those hypothetical circumstances.
“Better judged by twelve than carried by six.”
A wise aphorism in the lore of self-defense is “better judged by twelve than carried by six.” The person required to use force in self-defense faces a two-fold threat: first surviving the physical attack; and second surviving the potential legal threat of being wrongly accused of a crime.
Dominance, Escalation and Deception
Some physical attacks are part of a robbery, a rape, a riot, or planned. Putting those to one side for now, let’s look at the other sort – attacks that spontaneously rise from anger, conflict or a sense of having been treated disrespectfully by someone. What are some strategies and tactics that can be used to both good practical and legal effect?
The Social Reality
Humans are social animals. We have always lived in groups, each with our roles within the group. Like other social animals, we have orders of social dominance, and individual competitions for dominance ranking. These can be in part based on coercion (such as laws and law enforcement) as well as the actual use of force – lawful and unlawful. Generally we are unaware of our social dominance orders and roles.
But when it comes to self-defense, awareness can be a powerful tool to help us avoid trouble – to avoid both physical attacks as well as legal attacks.
A person may present to you their subjective belief that you have treated them unjustly or wronged them in some way. How can you use dominance, escalation and deception to avoid trouble?
When animals compete for social dominance, they often will display an escalation of threatening physical posturing, sometimes followed by an attack and fight. They know what they are competing for – social dominance, a recognition by the other of their superior position.
If at some point one of the competitors backs down and shows surrender, this submission will cause the winner to cease the attack. The dominant animal will not normally hurt the submitting one. One great story about this in literature is Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
Your humility may not be as deep and sincere as you might like – but you can use some tactical deception and adopt an attitude of humility. If backing down helps avoid a conflict, you win. You can’t stop someone from baiting you. But you can refuse to take the bait.
Though humans can’t necessarily be trusted to stop attacking a person who is clearly not competing for dominance, it is a strategy that may work in some situations. If the conflict is about the person’s perception of honor, justice, having been wronged – it doesn’t matter if they are justified – this may be a situation where conceding dominance, and de-escalation of conflict tactics may resolve the situation enough so that you can leave the situation, and move on.
Asserting dominance, escalation of conflict, can be just the thing
When a person or group threatens attack or attacks as part of a plan, like robbery or rape; conceding dominance and de-escalation of conflict tactics are unlikely to work. In these situations, the aggressor is a predator with a goal, acting with rational purpose not just emotion.
Here, asserting dominance authoritatively, escalation of threat displays and the use of force may be best. Why? Predatory behavior seeks an easy target. To ward off predators, be a hard target. Show strength, confidence, and dominance. Lead the escalation of conflict. To the extent that the predator is primarily opportunistic, they may be deterred. Where not discouraged, the predator may be effectively disabled by force.
Evade, Escape, Engage.
Where practical, it’s best to avoid a potential physical concentration. No one wins a fight, when everyone gets hurt. This could mean crossing the street, walking the other way, driving away – any way out of there, away from the threat.
Sometimes it’s not a reasonable option to retreat – for example if the threat is already close and would simply attack you from behind if you turned and ran. But in unarmed combat especially, creating some distance can increase safety. Even when the attacker is armed, creating distance can sometimes reduce risk of harm.
In many traditional martial arts disciplines, for example Wing Tzun, a general rule is that we do not initiate an attack. This idea, dating back hundreds – perhaps thousands of years, is not based on any legal considerations. It’s a fighting tactic to either avoid a fight by not initiating; or forcing the opponent to physically commit to an action that can then be exploited with various combative counter-techniques. This practice of not initiating a fight will also be helpful in the event of legal trouble, and the assertion of a legal defense of self-defense.
Before and once an attack is underway, we assess the threat and seek to bring a proportionate, reasonable response. We don’t want to respond disproportinately, but the perfect is the enemy of the good.
See our related article: Disparity of Force and Self-Defense.
Too little force to mount an effective defense could result in serious injury or death for ourselves or loved ones. Too much could lead to legal trouble. Those who judge us from outside the situation have the stress-free benefit of hindsight. The arm-chair quarterbacks often think they could’ve done better, even though they weren’t there.
Stop the Threat
Once force is used, when should it stop? Self-defense systems generally teach that you should use necessary force until the threat is no longer a threat. Contrary to the impression created in many films and television shows, the lawful self-defender does not seek to hurt or to kill, but rather to disable the attacker or attackers – to stop the threat.
If an attacker is hurt or killed that is an unintended consequence of the focused goal of self-defense – to simply stop the threat. Once the attacker is disabled from continuing the attack, the use of force against them should also stop.
After the use of force in defense of self or another
Once you have confirmed that the threat has been stopped or disabled, if it is safe to do so (being aware of third parties and weapons), it’s a good idea to render First Aid or whatever assistance can be rendered to the now disabled attacker, and contact the police if possible.
We’ll look at how to handle police contacts in the future (what to do, what to say and when). But what you do, and knowing what to do, before police contact stemming from the use of force in self-defense is far more important. Prepare yourself by learning and training in self-defense – not only for your sake but for the sake of your family, co-workers, and those around you.
Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer whose practice includes asserting the defense of self-defense and defense of others on behalf of clients.
Comments are welcome below.