Zimmerman and Self-Defense

I mentioned the George Zimmerman trial over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in my recent blog post. Now that the verdict is in, I feel it incumbent upon me to digest the outcome for you. My intent here is not to pass judgment on the jury’s decision one way or the other. Rather, it is to answer the question: What, as students of self-defense, can we learn from this Not Guilty verdict?

The first question that comes to mind is, What exactly was George Zimmerman found not guilty of? According to newspaper accounts, the jury acquitted Zimmerman of 2nd degree Murder and Manslaughter charges. Why? Because they could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

To put it another way, the prosecution failed to establish in the jury’s minds beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman did not act in self-defense.

In other words, the defense succeeded in planting in the jury’s minds the possibility that, at the moment he pulled the trigger, George Zimmerman might have been acting in self-defense.

So, here you have a situation in which the ostensible aggressor, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder charges, even though by all accounts he instigated the contact with Trayvon Martin that ultimately concluded with Zimmerman firing the fatal shot that killed the teenager.
At the risk of seeming too clinical about a tragic situation, I would ask my students to consider that what Zimmerman’s trial actually proves is this: self-defense situations are fluid by nature.

Unlike film media where the good guys and the bad guys are by design clearly distinguishable, real people do not wear signs (graphic t-shirt slogans notwithstanding). They do not present us with dramatic film trailers of their daily social transactions in easily digestible patterns that show them to be good or bad in light of a given community standard of moral behavior. Whatever else we might conclude about George Zimmerman and his verdict, about Florida’s self-defense laws, or about Trayvon Martin’s part in the entire episode, we cannot deny one thing this trial has shown us: in real life, self-defense is not so easy to define.

Well duh, I can almost hear you saying. Indeed.

And yet, as Taekwondo-ists, we may content ourselves with the fact that, because we know our art is one of self-defense, and therefore one whose skills we would not employ except in self-defense, whether of ourselves or a defenseless other who needs our help. In our minds, therefore, were we forced to act, we know we do so only because we are justified, we know we act in self-defense.

The problem is, once the situation is in the hands of judge and jury, not to mention teams of trial lawyers, the situation might not be so clear to them as it was to us when we chose to act.

In Idaho, the law dictates that an individual may act with reasonable and prudent force necessary to extinguish a threat, or the perception of a threat. Exceed what is reasonable and prudent, and you become the aggressor. (Manweiler, David, J.D.. 19 97. Unpublished research.)
So who decides how much force is reasonable and prudent?

In the actual event, you do.

In the trial, if it comes to that, the jurors do.

Everyone can imagine dire situations where the failure to act might make waiting for the police to arrive tragically moot (predatory kidnappings of children off the street come to mind.) Unless you are Batman, seeing a suspicious person walking down an alley is not one of these.  As students of Taekwondo, you must remember that physical self-defense is your last line of response, not your first. Learn not to let injuries to your pride or ego put your life and the lives of others at risk.

Do not involve yourself unnecessarily in altercations better left to Law Enforcement professionals.


Too Much Pride Can Be a Dangerous Thing

Recently I watched two of my young high school students, boys, as it happens, try to engage in a fistfight in the middle of the classroom. Ironically enough, they were fighting about, of all things, which of the two knew more about what a real fight was: neither of them, as it turned out.

Not so surprising, in a fifteen-year-old. And although the student desk that came between them prevented the landing of actual blows before I could insert myself bodily into their midst and stop the whole thing, the real damage had been done—to their educational futures within the walls of our school building.

But the immediate consequences for these two young men, while critical, struck me as less significant than the fact that they were willing to risk those consequences for the sake of pride—and in this case pride in something of which they were both so ignorant (their personal knowledge of what real fighting was)as to be resolutely unaware of how utterly ignorant of the subject they really were. They were piling ignorance upon ignorance.

Even granting a certain leeway in the nurturing of young boys’ images of themselves as self-sufficient individuals who can handle themselves in a dicey situation, I find it incumbent upon myself as a public-school educator and professional Taekwondo instructor to disabuse them of this idea that deluding oneself about who is the toughest guy on the block is a question of honor.

Self-serving pride, yes, but honor, no.

The trick is to recognize the difference. But how do you tell?

Honor is a matter of adhering to one’s principles.

Pride is a matter of defending one’s ego.

I can illustrate the difference with a story, but first we need to examine why understanding the difference is so important.
Leaving aside for a moment the endless debates that some individuals (who would rather talk than train hard) like to indulge in regarding which martial art style is superior to which martial art style, and whether non-contact or full-contact training is more practical, we can start with one fact as a given: Taekwondo skills can pose a danger to others in any number of ways.
Indeed, the art makes a conscious study of an aggressor’s physical vital points as targets. A middle-punch landed on the solar plexus can collapse the diaphragm and leave your attacker gasping for air. A well-aimed side-kick has the power to shred knee ligaments. Throats are vulnerable to any number of offensive techniques: knife-hand strike, palm-heel strike, straight punch, front kick; the list goes on.

That all sounds deadly enough, and the arrested-adolescents among us will find it extremely motivating to imagine themselves executing these techniques in James Bond-like fashion as they go through life battling the forces of evil in one fantastic scenario after another.

Be that as it may, and as critical as that sounds, it cannot be denied that the practice and development of Taekwondo skills in some sense invites, and even requires, this kind of speculation in the technical analysis of their destructive potential. And in truth, almost everyone will find themselves susceptible to this sort of daydreaming, at least momentarily, at some point or another.

Well, most of the boys will, anyway.

Never to expand one’s awareness beyond such self-indulgent reflection is a matter of ego.

To acknowledge the destructive dimensions of taekwondo skills as a way of reinforcing the need to exercise strict moral limits on their use is a matter of honor.

In the modern world the situation has somehow become even more complex.

As a purely practical matter, it is every responsible instructor’s obligation to make his students aware that while it is necessary to develop a realistic assessment of the potential physical consequences that might result from using Taekwondo skills in self-defense, it is perhaps even more important to assess the social consequences as well.

In our litigious society, the line between aggressor and defender can become blurred and even reversed during dissection in the calm of the courtroom, particularly in the absence of impartial eyewitnesses. In some cases, the blurring can become even more pronounced—in the court of public opinion. A good example of just how difficult it can be to assess these realities is the recent incident in Florida that resulted in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who is claiming self-defense.

To those who would argue that it is situations like the Florida incident that should compel one to forget about physical self-defense, lest you wind up being prosecuted as the aggressor, I would propose a different point of view. (Let me emphasize here that I offer the Florida case only by way of illustrating the confusion that can result, and intend no judgment one way or the other on the facts of that case.)

As I see it, it is precisely the acquisition and development of Taekwondo skills that can afford the serious student the awareness that will protect him or her from ever letting a situation like George Zimmerman’s escalate to the point where it can become the nightmare for all parties that that situation clearly has.

It does so by making its students aware that it is their self-serving pride that is the real danger.

This sounds as though I am discouraging my students from taking any pride whatsoever in the hundreds of hours of sweat and effort they have poured into developing their Taekwondo skills. On the contrary. What I want my students to realize is that as their skills grow, so must their sense of humility grow with regard to the destructive potential of those skills. From that burgeoning sense of humility can arise a growing awareness of our responsibility to those around us.

In order for your sense of humility to grow, you need something to be humble about.

To my students, then, I say value your skill. Make no denials about its destructive capacity. On the purely physical level, relish your abilities. Give yourselves up to the joys of execution. Treasure the changes in your health and conditioning. But be careful.

I offer the following story by way of illustration.

As I was driving to the dojang one day last summer to open for evening classes, I took my usual route through residential back streets with their 25-mile-per-hour speed limits. I find the lack of the usual urban desperation to arrive at one’s destination calming, and it helps to put me in a properly meditative frame of mind for teaching.

As I came to the last stoplight before turning onto Fairview Ave, a well-dented, unwashed little pickup truck of foreign manufacture came abreast of me in the left-hand turn lane. I gradually became aware that the driver of this vehicle, which came to a stop a little forward of my own car, was staring at me through his back window. He stared so uninterruptedly that I decided he must have something he needed to say to me.

As it turned out, I was right.

I pulled ahead and rolled down my window, noticing that all of his windows were already down, it being about 98° out, leading me to conclude that here was a hot man in a dirty T-shirt who was probably on his way home from an outside job and in a hurry to get inside somewhere cooler than the front seat of his non-air-conditioned pickup truck.

What he had to say to me was this: “You drive like a girl.”

This was a grown man.

I was so surprised, and reminded so strongly of the adolescent behavior of my fist-fighting high school students, that I laughed out loud.

Probably not the reaction he was looking for. I now realized that this young man’s intent was to intimidate me. I mustered a more reasoned response. “The speed limit on this street is 25 miles an hour. There are kids on this street.”

Reason made no impression on the man. “Well you jus’ keep drivin’ 25. You just keep drivin’ like a girl.”
This last was delivered with a sneer.

I waved him off. “If you say so,” I finally replied, and made my right turn.

I have to admit, as I reflected on this incident, and as I recounted it for my students in class that evening, I began to suspect that I was more guilty of pride in my narration than I was humbly satisfied in the mildness of my reaction.

Nevertheless, I consider it something of a marvel that after 30+ years of training in a fighting art, I found myself genuinely unchallenged on a personal level by this grown man’s accusation, and I assert it here as proof of what I have sought to illustrate: you should take pride in your achievements; just don’t be too proud of yourself.

Be Your Own Manager

In a recent New Yorker Magazine piece on the changing mores of the Chinese worker in an ultra-competitive workplace, writer Leslie Chang defines what it is to be an American this way: the ability to be “pushy and friendly at the same time.” Perhaps. That we live in a competitive society is a fact beyond dispute. American culture values hard work, individual initiative, determination, and perseverance, among other things, all in the service of achieving goals that our fellow citizens seek as well. But when it comes to inculcating an attitude of mutual respect in the process, we get a little conflicted.

The problem is not that we as Americans do not value the character attribute of respect. We do. But when it comes to personal politics, we are sensitive to a fault lest any unreciprocated display of respect on our part be taken as a sign of weakness and capitulation.

Asian culture historically has taken the opposite approach. 5th-century B. C. Chinese philosopher Confucius counseled in his Analects not to waste energy responding to insults imagined or otherwise.

“What is the good of being ready with the tongue? They who encounter men with smartness of speech for the most part procure themselves hatred.” [(Lunyu 12.2, 6.30). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/%5D

It was to be taken as a sign of inner fortitude that you stick to your principles and refuse to be goaded.

”I should like not to boast of my excellence, nor to make a display of my meritorious deeds.” [http://classics.mit.edu/Confucius/analects.html]

In other words, let your accomplishments speak for themselves. The proper strategy is to cultivate an aspect of strength in humility when confronted by the weak arrogance of others.

In a society that promotes personal salesmanship as the road to success, this is easier said than done.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the taekwondo-ist to adopt exactly this attitude. The skills are potentially too destructive not to maintain an exemplary level of self-control in the face of irrational behavior. I explain it to my students—especially the young ones—this way: Professional fighters hire managers who arrange their fights for them. When another person tries to anger you to the point of fighting, that person has just hired himself as your manager. Don’t let them do it.

Be your own manager.

With Ideas Come Responsibility

When one of my newest pee-wee white-belts from our community outreach class at the Boys & Girls Club informed me that, after three months of practice, he was quitting Taekwon-do, I was disappointed but not terribly surprised. His older brother had already given up the ghost, and in my 30+ years of teaching I have seen many an 8-year-old come to the same decision. Nevertheless, this particular young man had just been outfitted in one of the doboks we had donated to the club so I had been hopeful that this younger brother might be more motivated than his sibling, so I asked him why he was quitting.
“I’ve got all the moves,” he replied.
As I looked this diminutive young philistine with the no more than normally challenged attention span in the eye, gazing down at him from my full 6’3”, a veritable iceberg of commentary regarding why he most certainly had not “got” all the moves began vociferously to crowd the surface of my conscious mind, only to emerge as two meek, if fatherly words. “I see,” was all I said.
Because I did see. What this white belt did have, even with his minor amount of instruction, was a rudimentary grasp of a set of fundamental techniques. What he did not have was much skill in their execution. Techniques after all are only ideas, and this young white-belt had progressed to the point where his idea of this limited set of techniques was cemented well enough that he could begin to practice them in a more productive way and begin to create the skills the idea of a technique only represents.

So I was disappointed, but not because I had failed with this student; you can never tell whose imagination the art will capture and whose it won’t. I was disappointed because this student had reached what from an instructor’s point of view is one of the most exciting developments in any taekwon-doist’s progress, and that is the point at which idea can begin to become reality, and this young man had turned away from it.

What my young student had sensed, even if he wouldn’t articulate it to me, was the hard training that was now to follow. And he had decided, perhaps quite sensibly—for him—that it wasn’t going to be worth it.

For me, it has always been worth it.

Carry one sharp knife

“Better to carry one sharp knife than one hundred dull ones.”

To put this training philosophy into different words,

“Jack of all trades, master of none.”

To understand the statement on a practical level, think of any professional athletic endeavor.

Take boxing, to stick with a fighting art. Boxers evolve in their understanding of ring strategy over decades, but throughout their practice, they strive to master only a handful of physical techniques: uppercut, jab, cross, and hook; 4 basic punches; add to that basic stance, posture, head movement, how to clinch and cover up, in terms of body positioning, and you have the basics of the entire art. The rest is a matter of individual talent for timing, conditioning, and learning to take a punch. The best fighters emerge from the set of boxers who dedicate years to honing these few techniques.

Take baseball. Hitters learn one basic swing, with variations on that one theme to account for pitch and location. Pitchers learn one basic throwing motion with different grips for different pitches and some minor adjustments in footwork that can affect location and speed. Fielders learn one basic fielding strategy, for infielders (butt down, keep the ball in front, play the ball, don’t let the ball play you), and another for outfielders (first step is back, run under the ball and then raise your glove, know where your back up is when you decide whether or not to dive for a catch . . .); experience teaches the players how to handle variations in what the ball is doing, but the fundamental set of techniques remains very small. Players spend years perfecting these skills. At the college and professional level, pitchers often put the bat down and never pick it up again, so difficult is it to master their skill set and perform consistently.

Basketball players, one basic shooting motion. Some players are offensive specialists, some defensive specialists, and they all play specialized roles depending on their relative physical talents and assigned positions on the floor.

Traditional martial art systems like Taekwon-do, by contrast, actually require students to master a relatively large set of techniques (the Chang-Hon system we practice requires the practice of five basic ground kicks alone; our basic workout includes 10 basic fundamental techniques as well).

My point is this: the demands of a system like Taekwon-do require more fundamental practice, not less. Schools who offer a different workout every night of the week are caught in a desperate attempt to entertain, rather than train, their students.

That said, it is certainly possible, and even necessary to introduce occasional variations in workout format, but to be effective it must be done with the same fundamental training goals in mind.

In our school, this can take the form of a longer or shorter kicking practice, the inclusion of combination techniques that build on the fundamental skills, longer or shorter sparring practice, and occasional tournament competition practice, to name a few.

For the peewees and juniors, constructive games can be included.

One staple that never changes: every student practices all of his basic hyungs (the Korean counterpart to the Japanese kata) in one continuous set as part of every workout. This ensures consistent conditioning on the part of advanced students, and it can be argued that doing so also encompasses all the combination practice a student will ever need.


Grandmaster Knife breaking in competition in 1985. This flying side-kick over the student seated on the bicycle to break 3 pine boards, combined with a triple air kick like the one pictured from another tournament (see below), earned first place in the black belt division.

The same break from a different angle.

This triple air kick break is composed of a right-side/left-front split-kick, followed by a forward turning right side kick, all delivered from one jump.

Then 2nd-degree black-belt Michael Dunn breaking 4 inches with a flying side-kick over 10 people. Had Master Knife not added the triple-kick in the sequence above, this would almost certainly have been the 1st place break. In the event, Michael, God rest his soul, earned 2nd place with this break in that 1985 tournament.

Traditional Taekwon-Doists have always included breaking skills in their training, in order to demonstrate and develop the destructive focus of their techniques. Materials can include brick, cinder block, clay tiles, and even ice and glass plate. Most often, however, the material chosen is finish lumber, usually 1” by 12” kiln-dried pine.

This is available at many building supply stores, and comes in a variety of board-lengths. It is up to the practitioner to cut individual boards to the width of his choice. Kim’s Taekwon-Do School requires students to cut boards a minimum of 8.5” in width for competition.

Students stack boards to create greater levels of difficulty. In the competition photo on the following page, the students are holding 3 boards by hand. Students will find that holding more than 5 boards stacked together in this fashion is almost impossible without a brace similar to the one pictured HERE.

This emphasis on breaking is unique to non-contact practice, and is often misunderstood by the uninitiated to be some kind of parlor trick or act of deception. Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who has ever spent any time developing these skills can readily attest.

Several advantages become evident to those who have trained in breaking. First is the awareness of the true weapon surfaces required to break successfully without suffering injury, and the impact conditioning of those surfaces that only comes from consistent breaking practice. Second is the understanding that only with proper mechanics can students develop the true power to penetrate a target using a given technique. Every time students raise their level of difficulty, whether by adding material, using a weaker weapon surface (a forefist, for example, as opposed to a sword foot), or simply trying an unfamiliar skill, they are reminded that brute force will not suffice, and only advanced skill will result in maximum destructive effect.

Grandmaster Knife breaking 4” of pine with a straight punch.

To that end, traditional Taekwon-Do uses breaking as a training device, and all students testing for 5th kup onward must demonstrate specified breaks to advance in rank. Competition breaking is a chance for advanced practitioners to compare individual skills, certainly, but more importantly, it is the best venue to try and advance the boundaries of the practice itself.

In recent years, manufacturers have developed several varieties of plastic practice boards, which offer the financial advantage of reassembly for repeated use. These boards vary widely in quality, however, and at the time of this writing, the best of them is no longer commercially available.

3rd degree black belt Ann Singer breaking plastic with her side-kick as the closing exercise of a traditional workout.

The Early Days

To get to Boise from Portland you travel east, but when you get there you become aware that you’ve ended up further west—in spirit, anyway—than you were when you started. A dusty little cow town, that’s how I would have described Boise then. Cowboy boots and hat would not have been out of place; outside urban boundaries, dry brown hills hemmed in the town to the north, and a panorama of rock, sand, and sagebrush desert stretched as far as the eye could see to the south. To all outward appearances, this was not exactly a Mecca of Asian martial art, to put it mildly. Arriving in July of 1982, it seemed to me as if the arrow of time itself, to borrow from the language of theoretical physics, had been reversed.

Grandmaster Knife at the Boise dojang in 1984.

Fairview Avenue, where my dojang was situated, was reputed by my host, Boyd Kehler, to be the busiest street in the state of Idaho. I considered the abandoned, cyclone-fenced gas station next door, its formerly paved lot now dirt and gravel and a tangle of briar growth where its tanks had been unearthed and hauled away; as I looked from there to the dusty white cinder-block façade of the 4-store-front strip mall Master Kim had scouted as my new location, I did not doubt one bit that this was indeed the busiest street in all of Idaho.

Not that a certain amount of traffic did not pass by, and it was Sunday, after all. Nevertheless, as I stared out the dojang’s front window, across the diminutive and dilapidated parking lot—huge potholes amid split and heaving asphalt—that I shared with the boot repair next door to the east, the used paperback and comic book store to the west, and Flying Pie Pizza beyond that, the picture needed only a rolling tumble weed or two to render my sense of desolation complete. I had given up my apartment, my job, and the company of my girlfriend for this.

Not that I was without hope. I had reached a point in my life, romantic entanglements notwithstanding, where the future demanded action, and a place was just a place; I had three hundred bucks in my pocket, the use of my brother’s car for the next month, and an abiding conviction that I would be happy doing nothing but practicing and teaching Taekwon-do for the rest of my days. Now, as I looked out that window and sweated just standing there in the 95° heat, the only question was, would I actually be able to earn a living at it?

The space was small, about 250 square feet. I first had to clear it of a faux wood-panel partition that divided the space in half, and then tear out the worn and soggy carpet that covered the original linoleum floor. By the time I had cleared the debris from the room and cleaned the tile, I had a very serviceable workout space. Within two months I would find myself smiling on the day I had to stand in the doorway to watch the 14 students filling the place. Plenty of room. That was October, 1982. By January of 1983, the number was 25 and growing, and after that we never looked back. By June of 1984, given several months of previous experience prior to becoming my students, I was able to create my first two black-belts, one of whom was Boyd Kehler, now a 6th-degree master.

As a living quarters, on the other hand, that original space left much to be desired.

The bathroom I shared with the owners of the boot shop next door. I had known of this arrangement in advance, but the day I arrived I found myself anxious to inspect this region of the premises. The bathroom was located at the end of a brief hall space into which the back doors of both our shops opened. As I exited the dojang and entered this back hallway, I could hear a hammer banging next door as one of the brothers who ran the boot shop nailed a new sole to a leather boot he was repairing, as I soon discovered, amid a cloud of profanity. As I debated whether the time was ripe to introduce myself, I looked into the open door of the bathroom. The place was filthy. Brown smears which I told myself were probably just dust and dirt fouled the sink, the floor, and even the cinder block that formed the building’s rear exterior wall. Beyond the toilet stood an assemblage of dark sheet metal duct work that formed the ancient gas furnace. Standing in the toilet were a pair of boots, brown leather, mid-calf length work boots. I turned and headed for the boot shop. This was definitely the time to introduce myself.

The back door of their shop was open. The young man who was hammering and swearing must have sensed my presence in the doorway because he looked up from the inverted boot sole he was nailing before I had to say a word.

“Hi. I’m the new tenant next door.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Those your boots in the toilet?”
“Yeah. We like to wash the dirt off the boots in there before we work on ‘em.”
“Well, I don’t have a problem with that, but I’m here now, and I’m planning on using that thing as a bathroom.”

I didn’t tell him I was actually going to be living in the place.

“No problem, no problem, I’ll just get ‘em out of there.”

He put his work down and brushed past me. I followed him.

“I didn’t mean now.”
“That’s OK. They should be done by now anyway.”

He got the boots, shook the water off them and onto the floor, reentered his shop, and closed the door without another word.