Read the Prologue to The Protector Ethic

“I’m at Laughing Man Tavern in Washington, DC.”

This is the last tweet of Kevin Joseph Sutherland. It’s dated July 3, 2015.
In the early afternoon of July Fourth, Sutherland boards the Metro Red Line to meet friends downtown to watch fireworks. He is twenty-four, has recently graduated from American University, and has been hired as a digital strategist for a DC firm.
Just before 1 p.m. another passenger, eighteen-year-old Jasper Spires, tries to take Sutherland’s cell phone. He resists. They tussle. And now it’s a beating. Ten other passengers watch.
Spires pulls a pocketknife and stabs Sutherland more than forty times. He stomps him and kicks him. He dropkicks his head and even destroys the phone he originally tried to steal, smashing it against Kevin’s face.
Spires then turns on the others and demands their money. One gives him $65, another $160. He gets off at the next stop. He throws away bloody clothing, the knife, and a book bag containing his ID, and skips past police, who are looking for him. Sutherland dies on the floor of car 3045. It’s the first homicide in the transit system’s four decades of existence.
Two days later Spires is arrested and charged with first-degree murder. A crucial piece of evidence: CCTV footage of Sutherland and Spires boarding at Rhode Island Avenue, where the train leaves at 12:46 p.m. It arrives at NoMa–Gallaudet, the very next stop, at 12:49.
The attack, murder, and robberies took all of three minutes.


When I was nine, Mom enrolled me in karate class. Growing up, I was a small kid and got smacked around some, especially at that age when even nice kids bully just to try it out. I remember my instructor wore a black uniform, so it was probably kempo I was learning, but when I was nine, “karate” was what I called all that stuff.
Twice a week during that summer, we gathered at the rec center in Riverside, Illinois, a quiet hamlet with twisty streets just southwest of Chicago. I don’t remember my instructor’s name. I do remember he was young and rocked a stache, just like my favorite TV private eye, Thomas Magnum, so I just assumed he had a closet full of Hawaiian shirts and drove a Ferrari.
Those classes stopped once the school year began. As of this writing, I will soon see four decades in martial arts. That may seem like a long time. It’s not.
By twenty-one I was prone to extremes. At five eight and a lean 150, I could dive roll over the roof of a hatchback—yes, the roof—break bricks with my hands and feet, and max a bench press of 320 pounds, more than twice my body weight. I was a teetotaler but smoked cigars like somebody bet I wouldn’t. And I mouthed off. A lot.
I liked brutal sparring and ultraviolent techniques. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was just airing, and was my new favorite thing because it seemed to mash up cartoons and kung fu movies—two of my other favorite things. So when a Russian gongfu expert challenged me to a “match,” I knew it was just code for “fight,” and I put him down. And a few others along the way. Usually, I was charming enough to get away with poor decisions. But not always, like the night a noise complaint landed me at the business end of Sheriff’s pistols.
I read a lot. Still do. I picked up books like this one, looking for insight. When I graduated from college, I moved to Japan to train and study. When I returned years later, I founded a school to keep training and studying. I earned a master’s degree in philosophy. I was still searching. Still am.
Are you seeking ancient martial secrets? Here’s one: you already know how to defend yourself. A qualified instructor can run you through the basics, but that can take all of ten minutes. After that the serious work begins to reactivate and refine the instincts we take for granted.
People come to the martial way for all kinds of reasons, some of them good, most of them not good enough. Others have watched too many action movies. A select few seek the supernatural, working hard to sound just like the gongfu master’s master whenever they open their mouths, which is often, far too often. Deceit is at its worst when we believe our own lies, so avoid those who talk like Yoda and move like Jabba.
It took years for my own temperament to change, but that’s not just my story; it’s the life cycle of any serious martial artist. To break the mold of the form and enter the fray of the formless, where the real training takes place, you have to give up looking for answers. Only then can you do what must be done: ask better questions. You have to. Skills like exceptional punching and kicking only improves further once you understand and articulate an ethos for it. So you start with the question most avoid asking because they have a less-than-inspiring answer or, worse, none at all: Why?
  • Why am I doing this?
  • Why should I learn any of this stuff?
  • Why train?
Logic and reasoning can lead that inquiry. Other times a simple story convinces in a way argument cannot. Isn’t clarity the point? In fact, clear thinking on big questions begets bigger ones, like resolving right from wrong, deciding action from obligation, and facing up to the musts, oughts, and shoulds. If we’re going to use our bodies as weapons, and weapons as weapons, we’d better train our minds to discern wisdom from knowledge so we can act in the right way at the right time. Do this and avoid the worst possible fate, the one where we’re too late to make any difference.

Do you agree with the following statement?
I cannot intervene to stop an attack on another person because I am not physically capable.

It’s nonsense—claptrap, pretention to illicit approval, a ploy to con our higher sensibilities.
To even think about responding to the terror that struck Kevin Sutherland on the DC Metro line that sunny July day can leave decent folks inert—an utterly normal response, by the way. But dread is hardly an excuse for inaction, since its answer is so predictable—it always favors inertness.
“Agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger”—this is the dictionary definition of fear. But why should danger cause us fear when we do dangerous stuff every day? We slam into each other in hard-charging sports, snapping bones and joints; we enjoy diets full of junk that satisfy but poison us; and, like Pollyanna, we naively turn the privacy of our lives over to the titans of the virtual—and any criminals paying attention—just to buck our anonymity with a megapixel shot of a sushi platter. Driving a car is by far one of the most dangerous things anyone can possibly do. Over a five-year period, more than 25 percent of drivers will be involved in an accident—that’s one out of four! If I had a one-out-of-four chance of being eaten by a shark, I wouldn’t swim in a backyard pool. So, if danger doesn’t scare us, what gives?
People fear death. People fear pain. But nothing causes fear like having to deal with conflict. Human conflict is by far the number one phobia of our species, and most folks will do just about anything to avoid it, including ignoring suffering, cries for mercy, even our own conscience pleading to lend aid. Why do you think there is such a divide in how we view, debate, and carry out our social contracts, cultural beliefs, and politics? It’s because ambivalence toward traditional and time-honored mores is pandemic in this twenty-first century and the reason why is simple: most folks are terrified.
To save us, skepticism—the doubt that assails the search for truth—cozies up with soft words and bears gifts to transform our fear of conflict into a superficial strength. Some see this as compassionate tolerance and others a kind of civility—a way toward greater equality through the mantra “Different strokes for different folks” or “Live and let live.” But it is hardly that. Its true self is masked, and underneath is one of man’s oldest foes that holds contempt for the good, cynicism toward the joy of wonder, and a thick suspicion and distrust for truth itself. Its name is nihilism.
If nihilism were a person, he would be a supervillain living in a hollowed-out volcano with an army of ninjas waiting to die in his name. Nihilism may seem foreign, but it’s quite domestic—all spoiled children, whether children or adults, are nihilists at some point, for it’s the malady symptomatic of selfishness and its dearth of gratitude. The nihilistic ideal does not just lead to ethical befuddlement; it leads to moral confusion because it advocates for willful ignorance in the prioritization of values, the principles or
standards of our behavior. Not only do we not know what to do ethically, but we don’t know why we do not know.
Some values are more important than other values. When we deny that, we’re not on top of Mount Righteous waving the banner of tolerance; we’re hunting down and culling truth with torches and pitchforks.
Nihilism makes us bystanders, ones who willingly sacrifice the sacred to the senseless and art to the artificial. Choosing to stand for nothing allows the promotion of anything. In fact, when the zeitgeist equates all values, it provides the perfect cover to join in because, hell, everybody’s doing it. But this groupthink bears an unintended consequence: it normalizes the sick and twisted. Faced with a zombie apocalypse, rather than fight, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the risen dead as zombie activists, waving signs and yelling, “Zombie rights now!”—just before we’re surrounded and devoured.
From behind this veil of equivocation, folks can aspire to a world in which no value is greater because all of them are lesser. Conflict can then only occur when we choose to take a stand. But choose to stand for nothing and you protect you and yours. There are plenty who believe this to be a good, righteous, enlightened view of the world.
They’re wrong. It’s a joke—a sick and killing one.
The aim of morals, ethics, and especially virtue—the pinnacle of our moral and ethical endeavors—is not to avoid the fight but ensure that it’s worth fighting. Denying the causes of conflict does not alleviate but stoke, especially when faced with intolerable values like those that threaten, harm, torture, and murder innocents in the name of culture or creed. Distorting reality through groupthink and manipulating language and popular culture to claim the mantle of the right and the good is to deceive fundamentally on the matter of rightness and goodness. Consensus is never a worthwhile end if it means consensual suicide. Only the ignorant and dishonest are assured there is nothing worth risking themselves for. But this reasoning is as twisty as a Gordian knot. Fidelity to truth is not about unraveling these knots but, like Alexander, cutting them.
Intervention is often underrated in the aftermath of horror, usually by the bystanders who did nothing. It is hard to imagine, however, that these same folks would have discouraged passengers from coming to their own loved one’s aid. Would they have asked them politely to stop? Encouraged them to look out for themselves? Do you think Kevin Sutherland appreciated in those last moments the fact that no one dared intercede? After all, these folks only did what normal people think they should normally do: stay out of it.
Our absolute needs become our fiercest desires when we find them in short supply. Just ask anyone saved from drowning. No one is more grateful for a life saved than the saved life.
But try telling that to those who are convinced there is no magnetic north on the moral compass, like the writer at the Washington Post who softened the blow of her own
nihilism with cooing empathy: “It makes a lot of us uncomfortable to think we would have cowered instead of confronting Sutherland’s killer.”1 Of course it’s uncomfortable. It should be. We are all perfectly capable of intervening. We make a conscious choice not to.
Everyone has the mental, spiritual, and physical fortitude to intervene on behalf of another who needs protection. Who would be unwilling to shield their child, sibling, or spouse under brutal attack? Those who love them can throw themselves on their bodies to shield them from violence. Anyone mobile is capable of doing this, from Grandma to Junior, and people of all kinds have. No one has to be made of steel to intervene, because doing violence to the aggressor is not the point. Protecting the victim is.
If we do not acknowledge this difference, then we stand to applaud the claptrap and confide in the con that says we are powerless. This is irrational fear, the worst kind, and it seduces into that cult of victimhood—a cult of death—where we expect to be a victim at some point, and our only defense is the condemning hope that sheer numbers safeguard us from being next.
If you’re unwilling to risk your life to protect a complete stranger, congratulations, you’re a member of the club called human. There are plenty of folks—good folks, mind you—who will never bring themselves to intervene. But do not confuse that raw fact of our humanity with the moral, ethical, or virtuous, should, ought, and must.
However, if you are willing to risk yourself to protect others, that makes you above and beyond—superhuman, in fact—and we have a name for those people: heroes. And just so we’re clear, those willing to risk their lives to protect the lives of others, and physically engage attackers to rout them, kill them, or subdue them, well, we call those rare folks by another name: warriors.
The best that martial training can do is not simply provide the necessary mental and physical skills to respond to conflict, but calibrate ourselves justly to know we ought to respond. That’s another of those ancient martial secrets. In fact, you will find these secrets have one thing in common: they all concern, touch, and overlap the realm of ethics.
Placing ethics first, ahead of physical, tactical concerns, isn’t simply more difficult because it requires more training, more study, and skill. It’s more life threatening because it forces us to risk our lives for ourselves and others and thereby requires greater fortitude of will for the courage to act. Any book can splash photos of techniques across its pages. I admit, this book aspires to something more: to articulate why it is harder, tougher, requires more competence, more strength of character, and more faith in oneself, to be ethical before we are tactical.
The best definition of ethics I ever heard did not come from some inscrutable ancient philosopher or religious exponent or secular concern, although each of these has
contributed in some capacity to its historical meaning. It actually came from a US Marine Corps captain, a mentor of mine, who stated that ethics is nothing more than our “moral values in action.”
The simple and sublime from someone trained to shoot and blow things up. From a man trained to fight.
We ought to protect others. We ought to shield them and defend them if we must, so as to escape threats and violence. And we ought to want to.
Soldiers and police officers are protectors by duty. But so are moms and dads and schoolteachers. So is the pizza guy, the investment banker, and old lady Smith down the street. So are the ten passengers on a metro train when a predator sets upon an innocent.
We can ask ourselves that question again. We can ask it and attempt to answer with examples from the martial way’s significant history, or the hallmarks of its traditions, or the extensive beliefs that the antiquity of its thought communicates to us today in its myriad cultural forms. Or we can accede to its simple, undeniable answer and the resolve it compels us to accept.
Why train?
My God, how can we not?

1Dvorak, Petula. “Passengers Watched Killing on Metro Car. Should They Have Intervened?” The Washington Post, 9 July 2015, Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.