Gentlemen, Start Your Halberds!

by L. Neil Smith
[email protected]

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Reputation is a funny thing. I don’t like it any more than you do whenever I’m accused of being something I’m decidedly not. One idiot recently described me in e-mail as a pacifist, of all things. But I absolutely love it whenever people accuse me of being exactly what I’ve broken my back advertising myself to be for decades. It used to happen all the time when I was a regular guest on conservative talk radio. They’d call in, and in hushed conspiratorial tones, point an invisible finger at me and mutter, “Why, you’re …. you’re … a libertarian!”

If — within principle — you can help to make your adversary’s worst nightmare about you come true, you will render him speechless, for a time, and floundering. It’s rather like a prospective blackmail victim telling his blackmailer, “Go ahead, tell my wife everything you know. We may have a rough time for a while, but we’ll stick together, and then we won’t have a parasite like you on our backs to make it tougher.” Over the years, I’ve found that if you’re honest about what you stand for, folks will respect that honesty (and offer a surprising amount of support) even when they don’t respect what it is you stand for.

A while ago, some geeky little tattletale wrote to an e-mail list, accusing me of advocating the reestablishment of formal dueling. (People should know that if they write about me behind my back, I’m going to hear about it sooner or later, and maybe even do something about it, as I am now.) The message looked as if he thought he’d made a real discovery and had a super scoop in the grand style of Matt Drudge.

The trouble for Drudge Jr. is that I’ve spent almost every waking minute of the last 20 years doing everything I can to encourage people everywhere to purchase and read the very first book I ever wrote, The Probability Broach — and a good many that followed afterward — in which a civilization that I constructed laboriously by hand to be as admirable and attractive as I knew how to make it, commonly practices duelling.

Twenty-first century Americans have the misfortune to live in a civilization where it’s pretty well understood by everyone that the last thing to expect in a court of law is justice. Even where that isn’t so, on the (possibly debatable) assumption that there’s no necessary correlation between being in the right and being skilled at arms, dueling fills at least 50% of the gap, statistically, between what the law provides and what justice demands. As an engineering sort of solution to a knotty and eternal problem, that’s nothing to sneer at.

And it got rid of Alexander Hamilton, didn’t it?

Dueling isn’t a major point of the novel, although it provides a climax of sorts, and takes the foundation of libertarian philosophy to its limit, which is always a good thing. If you truly own your own life, then nobody has a right to tell you how to live it — or to end it. Nobody has a right to assess or define risks for you. And nobody has anything to say about any kind of relationship between consenting adults.

If you support drug law repeal, private weapons ownership, equal rights for gays, or any other expression of personal self-ownership, and you don’t support the moral right of two individuals to enjoy “coffee and pistols at dawn”, you’re a 24-karat, glow-in-the-dark hypocrite.

Naturally, I’d try to avoid having to fight a duel (a good reason in itself to reestablish dueling; it encourages good manners) and I’d certainly never challenge anybody. That would deprive me of the choice of weapons and conditions — make mine .44 Magnum revolvers at 100 yards.

At the same time, I’d oppose any ordinance, statute, or amendment, at any level of government, that forbade challenging politicians and bureaucrats — especially police officers — or exempted them from accepting a challenge or being publicly branded as a coward if they declined. Where “checks and balances” have become meaningless because all three branches of government get their paychecks from the same source, dueling could become a check or balance that actually meant something. In a world of faceless alphabet agencies illegally pushing people around, dueling could represent the ultimate in government accountability.

The mental picture of Janet Reno struggling to hold up a heavy dueling piece in her shaking hand as spectators scatter is absolutely irresistible.

Naturally, there would have to be some kind of rules to determine what constitutes a fair and evenhanded duel. Fortunately, there are several distinct dueling codes to choose among, historically, and that would have to be the first point settled by the combatants’ “seconds”.

One familiar school prefers the “ready, aim, fire” approach we know from movies about Jim Bowie, Andrew Jackson, and their ilk, or the back-to-back, walk a number of paces, turn, and pull the trigger. But another, interesting, and apparently commoner procedure is for the referee to drop a handkerchief and count from one to three. If the antagonists can’t get a shot off in that interval, a shot afterward is illegal.

Then there’s the choice of weapons. As I indicated earlier, as a longtime silhueta competitor, I would select large caliber handguns, preferably revolvers, at the length of a football field (although I’ve always rather fancied an elaborately-boxed pair of high-powered Thompson-Center single-shots on my mantelpiece). Others will prefer the traditional rapier, which I’m told is a lot like a sport-fencer’s epee.

But there are those who will always make unconventional choices. The Bowie knife comes to mind, having mentioned the fellow who gave it its name — and reputedly beheaded one attacker with a backhanded blow. Battle-axes have been proposed, as have dynamite and hickory switches. Abraham Lincoln, challenged to a duel, chose broadswords — across a huge fallen log — knowing it would put his shorter-armed opponent at a disadvantage. Revolutionary General Israel Putnam dared his challenger to sit on a powder keg with him as the fuse burned down. Putnam is said to have hated dueling, and after his opponent ran away, it turned out that the general had filled the empty keg with onions.

I suppose, if I have my evil way, as the poor e-sap tried warning people about, insurance companies will begin writing dueling clauses into policies, letting them off the hook in the case you get yourself shot, skewered, or otherwise inconvenienced as a result of a formal difference of opinions. On the bright side, dueling will make fencing much more popular than it is now, and restore to salons everywhere a certain seriousness of purpose they’ve been missing for a couple of centuries.

And the proposal — that we reestablish dueling by repealing all existing laws against it — should dissuade those who claim that I’m a pacifist.


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for Number 151, December 10, 2001

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