The Problem With Self Defense: Superheroes Part 2
In the last installment of the Problem with Self Defense editorial series, I started to discuss the recent surge in discussion over the Real Life Superhero trend in New York. Last week, HBO aired a documentary called Superheroes following members of the recent phenomenon of private citizens dressing in costumes to engage in everything from from charity work to vigilante justice. Among the groups featured in the documentary is a make-shift team of Avengers who operate out of the New York boroughs known as the NY Initiative.
In part one of this two part series*, I discussed the charity work and general positive side of these adventurous cosplayers. But the obvious problem with trying to be a Real Life Superhero comes from the part where they have to be super.
*Editor's note: Part one can be view here.
The practice of crimefighting, as the term is used by Real Life Superheroes, is the actual intervention by one of these masked vigilantes on a violent crime in progress. Crimefighting tactics can vary from reckless self-delusion to actions that can, themselves, be defined as violent crime.
A particularly active yet relatively sane neighborhood watch can film a criminal act, call the police, and submit the video as evidence. And, to be fair, a minority of Real Life Superheroes use this tactic. This is somewhat more sensible as the police are not omniscient, but are equipped and trained to handle potentially volatile incidents with a minimal of casualty on both sides.
Members of the NY Initiative have publicly expressed negative attitudes towards local police as justification for trying to perform jobs the police are much better suited for. The sentiment that the police are either spread too thin or just don't care is a thin veil placed over what crime fighting really is: looking to start a fight with someone no one likes so they take the blame while the trouble seeker gets to simultaneously get out his aggressions and feel like he did a good deed.
I used to do the same thing as a maladjusted youth (going in to maladjusted adulthood) with surly drunks at public gatherings. And even though I was also intentionally putting myself in situations where someone with an itch to do something violent would appear to be the aggressor, it didn't make me a hero so much as an asshole who would one day get shot going down that road.
The most egregious example of this danger seeking was featured both in the documentary and on multiple articles about the NY Initiative. It is a practice they refer to as “bait patrol.”
One member of the team, usually a woman known as T.S.A.F. or an openly gay man who goes by Zimmer, will intentionally dress like a victim. T.S.A.F. will dress provocatively with an exposed purse or Zimmer will assume another identity of a hilariously offensive gay stereotype. They will then walk the streets of Brooklyn at 3 A.M. hoping to have a run in with a mugger, rapist, or gay basher.
When this violent encounter comes, or so goes the plan as I was unable to confirm if they ever got their wish of being attacked, they signal the rest of the team who are riding a block away on skateboards to come to the rescue.
There are so many problems with this practice it's upsetting to have to put it in print. First, if the real intent was to deter violent crime, the Superheroes would come out in full regalia, let everyone know they are there, and hopefully make anyone with the thought of committing a violent crime view the neighborhood being patrolled as too hard a target.
Bait patrols are not crime prevention. They are spoiling for a fight.
Whether or not the bait patrol is technically entrapment is up for debate. However, it is certainly violent vigilantism and even more demonstrably stupid.
How long does it take for a team of Superheroes to skateboard a city block? How long can the physically smallest and weakest member of the team, dressed in clothes that intentionally restrict movement and ability to protect oneself from harm, fend off an unknown number of potentially armed attackers without serious injury?
I'd wager the answer to those questions are two different numbers.
It seems purely a side note at this point, but the two common people used as bait are really bad at fighting. Not that any amount of martial skill can guarantee safety in the bait scenario, but what sparring video and open-mat accounts of their training exists indicate that T.S.A.F. and Zimmer are terrible at unarmed violence.
Though, the existence of open-mat accounts show that they're not above trying to convince themselves that they are fighters for a few hours a week at various gyms.
That is where the worlds of Superheroes, “self defense,” and martial arts cross: the ass kicking fantasy.
Visualizing the physical destruction of generic evil doers to either right wrongs or feel like the world is a safer place is a smooth and sexy feeling. It is a feeling of control: that the hero is the one imposing his will on the situation rather than the bad guy. And, like all control, it is a fantasy.
In my career as a sports writer I have had the privilege of meeting and sometimes training with some of the best athletes on the planet. These people's skill, physical prowess, and dedication have turned them into something that seems more than a mere human. And all those athletes are killed just as dead by two bullets in the chest and one in the head.
Even the most intelligent and practical means of self protection, which are almost always absent from self defense fantasy, are playing a numbers game. The best methods are all built around avoiding trouble or recognizing and quickly escaping from it. And, if someone takes the most sensible measures to avoid harm, there's a better than average chance he will lead a safe and happy life, free of violence, until disease or old age eventually kills him.
Or he could be killed by a stray bullet from an incident too far away for him to have possibly observed.
If you are reading this article the odds are that you are alive. This also means that there is a chance, no matter how small, that at any given moment you can die. And so can anyone you know who is also alive.
Playing the odds is the best you can do. And no amount of costumed gallantry used to disguise impotent rage at this fact can change it. Certainly beating up some malnourished crack head feels awfully potent, but in the end there will always be more danger.
A watchful and protective community group is only working if it is deterring violent crime from happening in its neighborhood, not provoking it or trying to physically fight it.