I'd like to share a Krav Maga insight with you that I'm almost willing to guarantee is something that you've never been taught in a Krav Maga class.
As an introduction, I'd like to tell you a quick story.
SHOT DEAD WHILE EATING ICE CREAM
The young man in this picture is Botham Jean, a 26-year old accountant in Dallas, Texas.
On the evening of 6 September 2018, he was sitting at home in his apartment, watching TV and eating a bowl of ice cream. Suddenly, a police officer who had come through the front door confronted him, drew her firearm, and shot him dead.
The police officer was Amber Guyger, who lived on the floor below his apartment. She had just finished a 14-hour shift and had mistakenly gotten off at the wrong floor. She inserted her apartment key into the door of what she thought was her home, and found the door unlocked and slightly ajar. Suspecting a break-in, she drew her firearm, and as she entered, the young man on the sofa turned toward her. Thinking that she was about to be attacked, she opened fire.
The rest of the story is as frustratingly nuanced as it is tragic, because she realized in that very moment that she was in the wrong apartment, and dialed for medical assistance, but it was too late.
Regardless of the circumstances, only one salient fact remained: an armed (white) police officer had illegally entered the apartment of a completely innocent and unarmed young (black) man, and had shot him dead. And this was news that reverberated through US headlines for weeks afterward. Apart from the legal implications, the story carried enormous gravity in terms of police procedure, individual responsibility, the politics of gun culture and law enforcement, and entirely understandably, allegations of automatic racism and bias and police brutality.
Amber Guyger did not try to fabricate a story, as far as I can ascertain. She admitted openly and emotionally that she had shot the victim, that it was entirely her fault, and that she was guilty of the most enormous negligence in doing so.
She was promptly fired from the police force, and placed under arrest.
The case has taken a year to come to trial, and a mere two days ago (on 3 October 2019), she was found guilty and sentenced. Under Texas law, the crime carries a sentence of anywhere from 5 years to life imprisonment.
I’ll tell you more about this story in a moment, but you may well be sitting back right now, scratching your head, and asking: “What on earth does this have to do with Krav Maga?”.
Please bear with me, and I’ll explain where I’m going with this.
NOBODY EXPECTED THIS TO HAPPEN
At the trial, the deceased young man’s family were of course present, as well as many supporters who wanted to see justice. In a justice system in the US where white police officers have been exonerated of killing black victims under cloudy circumstances on numerous occasions, I think that there was very likely an underlying tension and anger that somehow, the same thing might happen here, and the mood was one of pensive hostility toward Amber Guyger and distrust toward the system that she represented when she was in her uniform.
And, of course, there was a great deal of heartbreak and anguish: the deep and inconsolable sorrow of parents who had lost a child who was described as gentle, intelligent, and kind, and the sorrow and poignance of the death itself and what it represented socially as well as personally.
So, here’s the remarkable part.
During the trial, Amber Guyger frequently broke down, and despite her own lawyer’s attempts to find exonerating circumstances, she essentially accepted full guilt and full responsibility for what she had done. The judge in the case, noting her responses and lack of desire to defend her actions, asked the jury to take this into account when arriving at a verdict.
They found her guilty, which of course was the only possible outcome.
During sentencing, the judge asked if any of the members of family wanted to add anything.
Brandt Jean, the brother of the slain man, rose, and addressed Amber Guyger.
And this is what he said:
“If you are truly sorry, then I forgive you. You made a mistake, and I forgive you.”
He went on to say: “I do not want anything bad to happen to you. I do not wish you to go to jail. I love you as a person.”
He then asked the judge for permission to hug Amber Guyger, and he stepped down and embraced her as she hugged him back, reduced to tears by his astonishing demonstration of grace and forgiveness.
Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Whether the sentence was just or not, one way or the other, I have no idea or opinion. But this I do know: with just a few words, the victim’s brother changed the whole complexion of the case – politically, personally, racially – and defused a great deal of the tension and sadness and anger present in the courtroom on that day.
To me, he demonstrated something utterly remarkable, and embodied a perspective that I can only describe as enlightened beyond that of most normal human beings.
In that moment, his one act of forgiveness spoke louder than a thousand acts of violence.
So, I ask again, what does this have to do with Krav Maga?
The answer is: everything.
YOU HAVE A CHOICE
When someone cuts you off in traffic and then gives you the middle finger, you have a choice to make.
When someone insults you or tries to belittle you, you have a choice to make. When someone screams at you in rage or anger, you have a choice to make.
The guy in traffic may have just lost his job, or have been humiliated in front of all his friends by something completely unrelated to you. He may have had a series of frustrating failures, or just a really terrible day. Do you really think he singled you out of the ten thousand other motorists to pick on?
The guy who tries to insult or belittle you, or troll you on social media, is not a soundminded person. He is fearful and insecure, and behind his bluster and bravado is a frightened little boy who tries to make himself feel bigger by attempting to make others look smaller.
The guy who raises his voice in anger is actually expressing pain or fear. He’s losing control of himself, and trying to reassert himself in a world that is overwhelming him, and you happen to be a convenient receiver if you’re in the same space.
You can choose to respond to situations like these in two different ways:
“Are you talking to me? Okay, tough guy, it’s on – let’s go.” And then the fists swing, the weapons come out, and the consequences are often far, far more than what we signed up for. Disablement. Sometimes, death. The possibility of a criminal record and jail time. Disgrace and loss of good standing in a community. The grief of your loved ones. Financial ruin.
And when that happens, let me ask you: was it worth it? Was it worth your moment of ego?
“I’m sorry I cut you off. I didn’t mean to. I’m truly sorry. Yes, you’re right, I am an irresponsible idiot. I apologize, and I won’t do it again.”
“I see this person trying to belittle me, and I choose not to respond. My response will be one of dignity and amicability, and I will not feed the fire or reduce myself to the same level.”
“I understand that you’re upset or angry, and you have every right to be. If I’ve offended you, I sincerely apologize. What can I do to change the way you feel?”
Written into every “choice 2” response is this powerful message: I forgive you.
As practitioners of Krav Maga, we need to understand that we are physically training to severely injure or even kill someone if it’s legally and morally justifiable to do so. And because of that, we carry a heavy responsibility to not engage in acts or attitudes that carelessly escalate violence, but to remember that as responsible Kravists, we are first and foremost peacemakers.
Our acts of forgiveness don’t need to be as dramatic or astonishing as that of Brandt Jean (and may we never have to experience something so shattering). But there are other acts of forgiveness, acts of tolerance and compassion, that will make the world a better place, and that will make us better human beings, too.
Forgiving someone – for their behavior or actions – does not mean that you are acknowledging that they are right. They may be 100% wrong and their behavior may be 100% repulsive and unacceptable, but that does not mean that we cannot choose to take the higher ground and be mature enough to not fly into a violent rage in return.
In case anybody misunderstands what I’m saying here, let me be crystal clear: if someone attacks you physically, or the threat of attack is imminent and unavoidable, then of course that is primarily what we train for. We train to defend ourselves, and to do it with overwhelming force and skill if it becomes necessary to do so. I am not for one moment suggesting that you stand there like a helpless sheep if you’re in danger.
But I am saying that half the strife you’ll ever encounter in your life can be avoided by simply choosing not to take offense at what someone says or does, because many urban conflict situations are not anything like life and death combat situations – and we need to be careful not to react to them as though they were.
A REAL-LIFE KRAV MAGA TEST
One of our most senior and skilled Krav Maga instructors (who shall remain unnamed) has a student who is due shortly to undergo his Black Belt grading evaluation. This young student (in his early 20’s) is already at a truly scary level of combative skill, and is deeply involved with active law enforcement and private security operations. Not only is he an incredibly talented Kravist and hand to hand combat specialist, but he also operates at a high level of tactical firearm training in addition to a few other specialities.
He embodies just about anybody’s definition of ‘hard to kill’, and is utterly formidable with or without weapons, in pretty much any context. He is a very, very capable combatant – no exaggeration – who could literally kill virtually any opponent in a few seconds if he really had to.
Now, I’ve been harassing the instructor to get this young man onto our Black Belt grading roster for the past three years – and the instructor has consistently refused.
“Why?” I asked him, on more than one occasion. “Why are you holding him back? He’s far ahead of the requirement already!”
The instructor just smiled and shook his head, and I had to grit my teeth in frustration.
Then, a few months ago, the instructor, his senior student, and a few other club members and their partners were at a birthday function in a public venue. During the evening’s celebrations, a somewhat older man, a stranger, approached the young student’s fiancé (who was sitting alone for a few minutes) and asked / demanded that she dance with him. She politely refused, explaining that she was there with her fiancé.
The stranger, already quite drunk, immediately began to insult her and call her some extremely distasteful names, saying several things which I can’t repeat here. Just then, the student came back from the bathroom, and politely intervened, explaining to the stranger that they were there together and that it was probably better to move on.
The stranger began to raise his voice and insult the student. He swore at him and challenged him to stand up for himself “like a man”. He demanded to know what the young lady was doing with such a snowflake, and told the student that if he wasn’t willing to fight, that he was a spineless coward. He also told the student that if he chose to fight, he would teach the youngster “a lesson that he would never forget”.
The student was silent for a few long moments, and then he turned to his fiancé, took her hand, and walked away, leaving the premises as several members of the public laughed at him and mocked him for being “a coward”.
The very next day, the instructor called me to book his student for the next Black Belt grading evaluation. And, after he told me what had happened, I understood why he had been holding his student back.
“I had to be sure,” he said to me. “I had to know for sure that the last box was ticked. I had to know that he understands when to fight and when not to fight.”
And, of course, he is 100% right.
True skill, true mastery, is not just about knowing what you’re capable of doing.
It’s also about choosing what not to do.