Responding to Violence with Nonviolence

We need to stop violence by responding with nonviolence.

On Aug. 25, 2020, then 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse travelled from his hometown in Illinois to a protest at Kenosha, Wisconsin, bringing an AR-15 style rifle and a medical kit, claiming to protect businesses and provide medical aid. During the shooting and subsequent trial, we see that after Rittenhouse shot the empty-handed Joseph Rosenbaum, a group of people started coming after him in response. In the ensuing chase, Anthony Huber, who used a skateboard to hit Rittenhouse, was shot dead. And because of a misunderstanding in which Gaige Grosskreutz thought Rittenhouse was an active shooter, he pointed a gun at Rittenhouse, allegedly to stop him from hurting more people. And because Rittenhouse had a gun pointed at him, he shot Grosskreutz in self defense.

Notice how each person Rittenhouse shot had increasingly dangerous equipment, putting Rittenhouse in an increasingly dangerous situation, leading to more shots fired and more bloodshed. This domino effect of violence is what we need to avoid.

Although the jury has found Rittenhouse not guilty, the trial has brought up many unanswered problems including hate, racism, and amateurish vigilantism. While emotions may run high, instead of pointing fingers at each other, we need to confront the broader root problems that gave rise to the tragedy to prevent it from happening again. This article will specifically address gun culture and the normalization of self-defense using deadly force.

First, we must acknowledge that not all circumstances are safe or perceived to be safe. Through the news, we are constantly made aware of attacks on protestors, attacks on innocent Asian elderly, mass shootings, etc., which all point to the potential violence one may encounter. Because there is a risk or perceived risk of violence, it is unreasonable to expect everyone to willingly enter a potentially dangerous situation, even with good intentions, without any equipment whatsoever, especially in a charged gathering such as a protest. However, instead of equipping themselves with deadly weapons like guns, people should use non-lethal defensive equipment in a confrontation that can ensure their own safety, as well as others.

While there is nothing wrong with ensuring the safety of oneself and others, the problem now is that there are people equipping themselves for self-defense solely with tools that can be used offensively. For example, knowingly putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation with only a gun, without first using protective equipment such as a shield. Because there is no alternative equipment, when there is a perceived threat that seems beyond the possibility of settling in a civil manner, then the only readily available tool to respond is the deadly gun.

Also, the sheer presence of a deadly weapon can make others around feel threatened. If two people are similarly equipped with deadly weapons, then in the resulting tension, any slight gesture may be misinterpreted and make one person feel that the use of a weapon is justified. Once one person uses a weapon, the other person would also feel endangered enough to use their weapon. Thus, both people come to act violently because they feel justified by the threat, real or imagined, posed by the other, hence propagating the violence in a catastrophic feedback loop, as seen in the tragedy at Kenosha.

How do we break this cycle?

Let us consider if hypothetically, the person claiming self-defense has a shield instead of a gun. And ideally, a shield can block anything, but can only be used defensively. If two people both have shields, then there can be no aggressor because neither person has the ability to do so. In the case that one of the two people actually is an aggressor, then the defender can use the shield to defend without harming the aggressor, until the aggressor is arrested.

Realistically, a shield does not guarantee your safety. But nor does a gun. And more so, a specialized defensive tool should be better at guaranteeing safety than a specialized offensive tool, not only because the shield is specialized to defend, but because firing a gun can escalate a situation and lead to more danger and bloodshed.  

Although the law currently allows the justification of use of force in certain situations, such as in the Castle doctrine, morally and for a more peaceful world, we should strive to counter violence with nonviolence. Practically, this means developing and relying on many layers of nonviolent methods so that the last resort of violence is never reached. Although each individual layer is not perfect, the many layers cover for each other to form a safe and reliable system, similar to the Swiss cheese model used in mitigating the pandemic.

Right now, because of gun culture, many people default to guns for self defense. However, a quick search on the internet shows that one can buy NIJ level 4 armor able to stop AR-15 rounds for the same price as buying an AR-15. Though body armor does not guarantee safety, this is only one layer in the Swiss cheese model. For example, instead of showing up with nothing else but a gun, Rittenhouse could have gotten more training on peacefully defusing a situation, made sure he was with a friend at all times, carried a radio, used a shield, and more. 

While it may seem easy to adopt defensive tools as an alternative to weapons, gun culture poses several barriers. First, is that for some people, guns have become a symbol for their ideologies. One obstacle to adopting peaceful means of self defense is that one may argue that guns are the best way of defending oneself in a society where you might be attacked by someone also wielding a gun. However, in the previous examples, we have already seen how bringing a gun leads to putting yourself in increasingly dangerous situations.

One may also argue that a gun is more convenient. In rebuttal, there are also small non-lethal tools such as pepper spray and strobe lights that weigh less than most handguns. You can also learn martial arts. Though one may then argue that learning martial arts requires training, so do guns, and if you are untrained with a gun, you will pose a bigger danger to yourself and innocent bystanders. Plus if you learn martial arts, you don’t have to carry anything with you.

Indeed, thousands of years of human conflict have already seen the development of a host of technologies, many of which are non-lethal or non-violent. The biggest barrier we face now is the culture that prevents many of us from recognizing, adopting, and developing non-violent technologies as opposed to deadly weapons.

Violence begets violence, and we need to stop the cycle by responding to violence with nonviolence. Because of the way things are now, we cannot reasonably assume that we will never encounter violence, so to defend ourselves and still avoid using violence, we should rely on and work to develop nonviolent methods and technologies.

Perhaps the root problem is the ugly side of human nature in general. We all make mistakes when we are influenced by certain ideologies and in the heat of passion, and technology serves to amplify or mitigate the effects. While the mistakes we make are perhaps less controllable, we should have greater control over technology. It’s almost as if technology is a way of transferring human reasoning to situations where reasoning is less possible. Therefore, we need to use technology wisely.

Photo by Maria Lysenko on Unsplash.

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