When Violence is the Only Answer

When I was in second or third grade, I made a drawing in response to a prompt we were given in school. The prompt was:

I have a dream that one day. . .

My response, which you can just see in the top left of the picture of my bedroom wall, was:

I can do what Martin Luther King did.

Although I have fallen considerably short of that dream, Martin Luther King’s quest for racial equality has long been an inspiration to me. I still keep a postcard of MLK near the computer monitor in my home office, a subtle reminder that the cause for which he fought is still a cause, and the dream for which he died is still a dream.

Of course, the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience was central to my understanding of King’s work. But over time I came to learn that King was not always a complete pacifist; he was known to keep a gun at home and applied for a concealed carry permit due to the constant threats he faced. And even a young Rosa Parks once threatened to throw a brick at a white boy who was bullying her.

I have lived my entire life largely free of physical violence. I was in one poorly conceived and executed fistfight in middle school, but otherwise I have managed to avoid the need to defend myself from or use violence.

This continues even within gun culture, as I have been strongly influenced by those who preach avoidance as the best defense (as Michael Bane does in his TV show of that title). As the saying goes, “The first rule of gunfighting is don’t be there.” In other words, “You can’t lose a fight you’re not in.”

Enter Tim Larkin and his provocatively titled book, When Violence is the Answer.

There is much more to the book than this, but the essence can be summarized in the first sentence of the book (p. 3):

Violence is rarely the answer, but when it is, it’s the only answer.

Avoidance and making good life choices — often referred to as observing John Farnam’s “rules of stupid” — will mostly keep you safe from violence. As Larkin writes, “for most of us, violence is an anomaly — a black swan event whose likelihood is as predictable as its consequences, which is to say not very. Most people will go their entire lives without experiencing serious violence” (p. 5).

Because black swan events are rare, Larkin later explains, “they’re relatively cheap to hedge against, but they’re so unlikely that most people don’t bother to hedge at all” (p. 134).

But here’s the catch: “those who do [experience violence] will feel firsthand its power to drastically change, or even end, lives. It only has to happen once” (p. 5).

The balance of the book explains Larkin’s approach to addressing violence through understanding both why and how people engage in violence against innocent people (Part 1) and how innocent people can think about and use violence to defend themselves (Part 2).

Of interest in Part 1 is Chapter 5 in which Larkin discusses times “when violence isn’t the answer.” Which is to say, most of the time. Bracket your ego, swallow your pride, avoid confrontation, or if it begins, just walk away.

In Part 2, I found particularly insightful his discussion in Chapter 7 of how “your brain is your deadliest weapon.” He begins by stressing the importance of tuning into rather than ignoring fear. Nothing new here to anyone who has read Gavin de Becker’s work on The Gift of Fear. But Larkin takes it a step further by arguing, “Mental training is . . . about learning how to channel fear into action” (p. 187). People need to train their brains to switch decisively from a defensive mindset to an offensive mindset when the circumstances dictate.

There’s more to When Violence is the Answer than these snippets and maybe I will do a complete review one day. But for my money, the starting point alone — that there can be a time when violence is the only answer — was worth the price of the book.


  1. Even Rev. King had armed bodyguards. And then there were The Deacons for Defense and Justice. There is a movie about them. It is pretty good, though I can’t say how historically accurate it is. But probably not a bad place to start.

    There is a line from Tolkien, that I will misquote. Eowyn to Aragorn in The Two Towers “Even those without swords can die upon them.” You can want peace, but if even one of your enemies wants war, they can kill you if you can’t defend yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Whenever discussions of non-violence come up and King & Gandhi are inevitably mentioned; I always ask the question of why King and Gandhi were successful, to see if people understand history and how the world actually works; other than the blindly obvious fact that their causes were just and moral.
    I imagine that throughout history there have been many hundreds if not thousands of people whose causes where just and moral, but history and you and I will never know their names because they are just one of millions of nameless faceless corpses buried in mass graves littered through history at the alter of collectivism. If the Japanese had made it out of Burma into India during WW2; history would have never heard of the name Gandhi, because he would have been just another headless, bayoneted corpse floating down the Ganges.
    King and Gandhi were successful because they opposed REPRESENTATIVE governments; and these governments were representative of at it’s most basic a moral and just people, even taking into account the aberrations which occur everywhere and at all times. Had they done this anywhere else in the world, we would have never heard their names, as they would be one of the nameless millions sacrificed to the whims of the wanton lust for power and control.
    The Palestinians could win if they adopted King and Gandhi’s mind set, for Israel is a REPRESENTATIVE government and it is representative of a moral and just people, but they never will, they can’t; Jew hatred is part and parcel of Islam, it is baked in. and until that changes there will never be peace in the Middle East.


    • It isn’t just “representative” that is required. On some level both the old Soviet Union and Germany before WWII fit that bill – to varying degrees – at least for some of their citizens, on some topics. The real difference is that neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany gave a rat’s ass about how they looked to the rest of the world. They did what they wanted to do, if you had a problem with that you could try and stop them. Which is what eventually happened in the case of Germany, and the system was so bad in the case of Soviet Russia that it crashed on its own.

      The British in India liked to congratulate themselves about how civilized they were. And when their noses were rubbed in exactly how barbaric their treatment of India was, they left. They cared about the image. They cared about the PR.

      And the Soviets didn’t last long after they decided that the PR was important.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.