I’m pleased to see that unlikely 'have-a-go hero' Jack Straw has said that the laws on self-defence will be reviewed. Should I be involved in an incident that required the use of force, as a martial artist training two or three nights a week for many years, I could well be subject to a closer scrutiny than the average punter of what constitutes 'reasonable force’. Prosecutors have made such arguments in the past.
But also as a martial artist I’m afraid that kind of thinking perpetuates some basic misconceptions about self-defence: It is based on images in cheesy king-fu movies and preposterous teach-yourself books that show the restraint of multiple armed attackers and where the defender always escapes without so much as a scratch. Unfortunately such images are complete bollocks.
Martial arts training is great for many things, but it doesn’t give you magic powers. In fact the more you train the more you appreciate how vulnerable you are to being hurt by an attacker regardless of their skill level. I have heard it said that you can no more fight without getting hurt than you can swim without getting wet.
Boxers know this from day one, but many martial artists will insist on teaching differently. So in every community centre we have ‘self -defence’ classes that create a false sense of security. If the instructors were to be more honest they would call them ‘fighting lessons’ but then there would probably be rather less uptake.
Some of what these lessons teach is downright dangerous:
Elegant disarms from a knife attack: As an exercise we once practiced some of these with dummy knives smeared with soot. By the end of the session our arms and torso were literally covered in the stuff – each mark indicating a potentially lethal cut or thrust. In a real situation, if you fight someone with a knife you will get cut. Most serious practitioners will say, don't take them on unless your life depends on it.
Restraint techniques: All those locks and throws that prevent you getting hurt without actual hurting the other guy. The police, who quite rightly are subject to restrictions on the force they use, are taught them. But the police also usually outnumber the attacker and have back-up available. I am sure some frail and ancient Aikido mater after a lifetime of practice can restrain an 18 stone drunk prop-forward with an arm lock. But this takes a degree of precision in a stressful situation that you won’t achieve after a course of one-hour lessons at your local community centre.
Even for a trained person, when in a stress-charged situation, the only realistic way to remove a threat is to neutralise it by battering your opponent into such a state that they can either offer no resistance or you can run away.
But I still wouldn't fancy explaining that one in court...