Last month my son was assigned to build a catapult for his high school physics class, a task he explained to me between gusty sighs while searching the Internet for construction plans. He found quite a few models; trebuchets and couillards and mangonels, most of them sized for launching tennis balls and similar projectiles. There was even a pink catapult, recommended “for girls” and dubbed (with complete disregard for the rich naming history of medieval weapons) the “Pinkapult.”
“How many girls are in your physics class?” I asked my son, wondering if Pinkapults were a common phenomenon.
“I’m not a census taker, Mom,” he informed me.
I took the hint and left him alone for a week and half, after which time he had succeeded in constructing an onager out of one-by-fours and some Bungee cord. He graciously accepted technical assistance from his father, who does not quiz him on classroom demographics and is, moreover, the only person in the family who can find any tools out in the shed.
However, I’m the daughter of a physicist and astronomer, and though my father never painted a telescope pink for my benefit (or any other reason), yet a little of his expertise did seep into my girlish brain. So I felt qualified to weigh in during the testing phase of my son’s project, with some advice on increasing the height and distance of the onager’s shot (the men had initially placed the pivot bar too far back). I also suggested using cat toys for the payload, which made the testing process far more entertaining.
Maybe it’s my father’s background in physics, or maybe it’s all the boards I’ve broken and roundhouse kicks I’ve absorbed, but I do love applied force. And yet somehow, projectile weapons have never caught my fancy—not even pink ones. Aiming at anything beyond arm’s reach strikes me as a tedious waste of time, and I also find the remoteness of ballistic weapons unsatisfying. You’re so far removed from whatever havoc you’ve caused that, to my mind, you might as well not have gotten involved at all. If my opponent is so distant that I need to throw something to hit him, why am I fighting him in the first place? And if he persists in hurling dangerous objects at me, why don’t I just leave?
I prefer simple answers—they nearly always work better—and range complicates a fight, logistically and ethically. It transforms a contest of strength, skill, and luck into a much more complex affair, where engineering, planning, and supply are paramount. Range weapons have to be designed, built, tested, and practiced with. They have to be transported to the site where they’re needed, and aimed properly so they cause damage in the right places. They must be supplied with appropriate ammunition—bullets, bolts, stones, flaming objects, rotting corpses, cat toys. All of this is highly organized and premeditated activity. An awful lot of people have to come together in agreement that some douchebag way over there deserves to have a 12-pound rock dropped on his head.
That seems needlessly complicated to me, and distracts from the more important issue: Why am I working so hard to hurt someone I can’t even see? I don’t mean that in some vague “live-and-let-live” way. It’s an important practical point: How far away do I really need other people to be in order to feel safe?
There’s an exercise I use when I teach self defense that helps people define their personal safety zone—the space around you that you consider “yours,” and don’t like to have others enter. The exercise involves having a partner walk toward you and, when she’s at a comfortable, “conversational” distance, telling her to stop. You take a moment to notice how this distance feels, and then ask your partner to take one more step toward you, into your personal space. You experience that for a moment, and then describe how it felt: How did your body react? What went through your mind? What were you noticing with your five senses?
This exercise’s controlled, intentional violation of your personal space is a way to sensitize yourself to proximity cues—the signals your body sends when a situation may be veering from innocuous toward dangerous. Some people prefer a lot of distance between themselves and another person. Others are comfortable having people closer. Our preferences change depending on how well we know someone, or want to know them. But most people’s preferred distance for human interaction (in my experience) ranges from arm’s length, to, say, six to ten feet away. You can imagine that comfort zone evolving over millions of years of human interaction; there’s logic behind it. Arm’s length is the threshold of physical contact, and the slightly longer distance is about where you’d be able to carry on a conversation without raising your voice. The perceived zone of safe interaction for most humans, then, seems to be one that discourages physical contact while still permitting us to communicate. That’s a good basic blueprint for safety.
Range weapons, on the other hand, completely disrupt our evolved sense of what constitutes a safe distance from a potential enemy. And while this disruptive quality is precisely what makes them such effective weapons, it also makes them, in the long term, detrimental to our safety.
If you have doubts about how radical range weapons are, consider their rarity in the natural world. In the context of hunting, for example, range weapons make a certain kind of sense: When you don’t merely want someone to leave you alone, but are actually trying to eat them, you will probably have to pursue them. In that case, increasing the range of your lethality is advantageous. And yet very few predators other than humans have evolved the means to hunt with projectiles. A frog’s tongue is one instance, and an archer fish’s ability to bring down insects by spitting at them, but I can’t think of many others. Apes, possibly. Don’t some of them throw rocks?
Very few animals employ distance weaponry for defense, either. Skunks are one of the rare examples, and whip scorpions. A few animals spit in self-defense, but mostly to distract, not to cause damage. If distance weapons were a truly effective defensive tool, you’d think more animals would have evolved ways to use them. We wouldn’t necessarily see wildebeests huddled behind battlements, boiling kettles of oil, or rabbits carrying crossbows, but we’d see some evidence that a species’ genetic investment in projected force paid off; that it helped them to survive. Instead, we see a marked evolutionary preference for every other form of self-defense imaginable: Speed, numbers, camouflage, mimicry, quills, spines, and shells.
We humans can, and occasionally do, use projectile weapons for survival. If you live near hostile people, or between them and something they want, range weapons may help you defend your castle or city. They don’t, however, do much to resolve the problem of why you’re being invaded or besieged in the first place, so they’re no guarantee of long-term survival. Siege weapons, after all, were developed to take over fortified defensive positions. We created them to use offensively. They don’t solve real-world defensive problems very well.
Which brings us back to the pink catapult. Because as a female self-defense instructor, I run into a lot of people who advocate range weapons—mainly, handguns—as a good self-defense option for women, a way to “level the playing field” and prevent the bigger, stronger males of the species from preying upon us.
It’s logical if you don’t think about it too hard. After all, if a male attacker can’t get close enough to hit me, his physical strength is irrelevant. In practical terms though, this argument derails pretty quickly. We may imagine the male attacker advancing slowly toward his intended victim like a lion stalking a gazelle, making it easy for her to draw a bead on him. But in fact, most assaults against women are perpetrated by people they know; that is, people who are already close to the victim, physically and emotionally. Few people imagine themselves using a gun in such situations, and fewer still manage to do so effectively.
The logical slippage is also evident in the way guns are marketed to women. Consider, for example, an ad I found in a local women’s magazine, touting concealed handgun classes for ladies. “The best defense is a concealed one!” it chirped, accompanied by a photo of a blond woman with a ponytail, pink nail polish, and a black semi-automatic, superimposed over a bullet-riddled target.
I showed this ad to my son, who (you’ll be shocked to hear) was not impressed. “It’s like that old movie we watched,” he told me. “Dr. Strangelove. Remember the Doomsday Machine? ‘The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.’”
Now, this kid is only seventeen and he’s only seen one Kubrick film, but he still caught the absurdity: The whole point of a concealed weapon is that no one knows you have it; ipso facto, it can do nothing to influence an attacker’s decision to target you. What carrying a weapon can do, though, is inspire a false sense of power and security. It can make you conscious of your vastly extended range of lethality. And that may lead you to do really stupid things, because the bigger the space around you that you feel entitled to defend, the bigger the perimeter is that you must secure. It’s basic math: If I want people to stay six feet away from, I have to police a circle with an area of 113 square feet and a circumference of 37 feet. If I decide to carry a 9mm Luger, designed to be lethal at 50 yards, I’m concerned about threats in an area of roughly an acre and a half, with a circumference of over 300 yards. That’s a hell of a lot of territory to defend.
In other words, once you have a gun, you need a gun.
Projected force may start out defensive in nature, but it can quickly become pre-emptive—or, in plainer terms, offensive. It’s almost inevitable, given the way range weapons re-frame safety and danger. And governments are even more susceptible to this offensive drift than individuals, which is why we as a nation now fight our wars almost exclusively at long range, doing the damage further and further away from where the generals sit. Our military relies on missiles, air strikes, and unmanned drones to kill people on the other side of the planet, which is a very tidy arrangement—for us. Roger Waters, in a song about the first Gulf War (remember that one?) aptly labeled this mindset “the bravery of being out of range.”
Let’s be honest: projectile weapons appeal to people not because they even things up, but because they provide an unfair advantage. They let us feel we’ve gotten away with something; that we’ve won without really having to fight. Even if our initial impulse in using them is defensive, range weapons invite us to conceive of our power as an ever-expanding force, an iron-clad comfort zone that we can extend outward for thousands of miles if we like. And that’s tempting.
But when we push our enemies out so far that we can’t communicate with or even see them, we cut off the possibility of anything other than conflict. And when we engage at such a distance that we risk no damage ourselves, we lose interest in things like prudence and self-control. Then it becomes very difficult to escape continued, escalating conflict.
This is true whether you’re addressing global conflict or a pervasive culture of sexual violence: Long-range weapons are a short-term solution at best. If we want more lasting answers, we need a different kind of courage—one that doesn’t rely on our being safely out of range.