Justice Zone

A story last week brought some interesting comments. I don’t often use quotations as taglines, and less often than that does someone argue with the quotation. Let’s start with the story, from the 7 August 2022 issue:

Justice Zone

It was a shocking case of apparent domestic violence in Dallas, Texas: police responded to a shooting at an apartment building, and when they arrived they followed a trail of blood that dead-ended where a car might have parked. Then police got another call reporting a bloody scene inside a car outside a nearby hospital. Officers pieced together what happened: in a fight with his girlfriend in their apartment, Byron Redmon, 26, apparently held her down to shoot her in the neck. The bullet went through her neck but didn’t kill her; the bullet continued on and hit him in the leg, apparently severing his femoral artery. The two headed to the hospital but didn’t quite make it inside. Redmon bled to death; the unnamed woman was treated for a minor wound and released. (RC/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, WFAA Dallas) “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” —Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), American writer.

No one mentioned catching the reference for the slug on the story: it’s a nod to Red Dwarf — an interesting episode called Justice (4th season [or series, if you’re a Brit], episode 3). The “Justice Zone” on the deep space penal station causes criminals to get what they give. They punch you in the face? They’re the ones that get punched in the face. For obvious reasons, it popped into my mind as I wrote the story.

There were some comments about the story in general, of course, none better than from Annie in Iowa:

He shot her in the neck and hit his own femoral artery? Huh, I wonder where her head was when he shot. Sure made me think of fellatio with a side of danger….

Cough. Could be: guns are sometimes used to heighten sexual excitement — with the occasional predictable result. I don’t know if they were fighting and he pulled her into his lap in anger, or …that. Maybe details will emerge later.

The Tagline

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” said one of my favorite writers, Isaac Asimov. Jordan in California quickly retorted:

“Yes, because only incompetents wait until violence is their last refuge.” That is, competent people will use violence earlier, and will still have (less desirable) options left if violence fails.

Jordan thought it was a Jerry Pournelle retort to Asimov, but it’s not — at least not with that exact wording, which brings no Google hits whatever (but I guess it will once Google indexes this page!) Jordan tracked it down, though: see the first comment.

Ray in Ohio went deeper into the quote:

I’ve always had an issue with the Asimov quote. I find it to no longer be true; rather, the last refuge of the incompetent is to hide behind their identity as a currently fashionable minority, as a parent, as a member of a given political party, you name it. It’s never, “I messed up” or, “Maybe the other person chosen was better,” it’s “You’re just picking on me because I’m [fill in the blank]”, “I shouldn’t do any jail time because I’m a mother/father” (as I call it, hiding behind your children), “I’m being persecuted because I’m a Republican/Democrat”, “I didn’t get the job because I’m [fill in the blank]”,etc. Sometimes they are right; sometimes someone didn’t get what they deserved because they’re female, or black, or Latino, or gay, or Muslim, or Jewish, or not from a rich family. But what once was occasional has become universal. Rather than having one’s “identity” be the last reason people look for when they lose, when they’re not chosen, and such, it has become the first, exacerbated by a mainstream media that thrives on conflict and lazy enough to want to drag out the most mundane decisions by framing everything in religious/racial/gender/preference terms rather than ability and/or experience.

I’ve found that lots of cases of violence are tarred with this quote when in fact, violence is the only thing some people will “get.” The best current example is Vladimir Putin, as I think the only thing that will stop him is three well-spaced lead slugs to the back of his head. A competent person should not be condemned for taking the only real solution to the particular problem. I abhor violence, but I understand when it is necessary (which is infrequent).

Perhaps what Asimov should have said was, “Violence is often the last refuge of the incompetent, and sometimes the only solution available for the competent.”

I’m a long-time Premium subscriber, and I hope to subscribe for many years to come (as I tell people, “A five-year renewal or a five-year CD is an act of optimism at this point in my life.”) There are times when the Premium issue Monday nights is the only darned thing worthwhile on an otherwise typical Monday. PLEASE keep on keeping on!

It seems like I still have things to say, thoughts to provoke, and readers willing to help pay for the servers. So far, so good!

Perhaps my favorite Asimov quote: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.” —Isaac Asimov, January 21, 1980. It may look familiar: it’s from my Randy’s Random site.

Essay Link

When researching the Asimov quote (I like to make sure I get quote wording right, not just what I “remember” it is), I came across — and linked to in the issue — a previously unpublished essay by Asimov, Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?” in the MIT Technology Review, and linked it on the top of the issue as “Other Good Reading”.

That brought an interesting comment too, from Roger in Colorado:

I’ve long studied the creative process, originally in myself, then, cautiously, in a few others, and I’ve struggled to find the words to describe what Asimov elegantly describes as “cross-connection.” More importantly, Asimov suggests some situational characteristics that may contribute, sometime later, to that “aha” moment — ease, relaxation, permissiveness, foolishness, informality, joviality, joking, relaxed kidding — to “encourage the folly of creativeness.”

I’ve led brainstorming sessions that have been useless because one of the people present commented that we weren’t being serious about our pursuit of better ways to do something or other. I’ve also found that the “great idea” won’t appear in the brainstorming session, and it’s essential to follow up with each participant so that they have an opportunity to hesitantly express their “stupid idea.”

For myself, I’ve learned that I must have the opportunity to attempt to express an idea, even though it may be foolish, because putting it into words clarifies the concept and forces me to deal with its internal contradictions. I’m forever grateful for the boss who commented, “you’re driving me crazy; you bust in here regularly with another ‘great idea,’ which turns out not to be, and I’d fire you if you didn’t, once in a while, have an absolutely brilliant idea that makes worth listening to the other one hundred worthwhile.”

Importantly, the greatest ideas I’ve had in my lifetime, the ones that made other people rich, occurred when someone said, “that can’t be done.” Sort of like, “that can’t be true.” 🙂

Thanks for adding to my collection of insights! You wake up some unusual pathways in my brain every week.

Waking up unusual pathways in readers’ brains every week? What more could I ask for?!

I’m interested in your thoughts about the quote. Comments are open below.

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8 Comments on “Justice Zone

  1. After some research… more or less from the horse’s mouth, Jerry didn’t remember whether he or H Beam Piper thought of it first.

    Joel Rosenberg (probably the science fiction writer) Joel Rosenberg asked Pournelle:

    As to the “last refuge of a scoundrel,” wasn’t it Ambrose Bierce who argued that Dr. Johnson was, in fact, wrong — that patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel? Such quotes always remind me of the comeback to Asimov’s “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” that I’ve been using for decades, and I assume I got from H. Beam Piper: “Yes, it is, because by then it’s too late.”

    Jerry’s response:

    Beam and I both used that answer to Isaac; I forget which of us thought of it first, and Beam Piper was kind enough to say that he too had forgotten….


  2. Double checked to make sure. The quote is from the character Salvor Hardin, the Mayor of Terminus City in Asimov’s Foundation. He was being pressed by all sides to do this, that, or the other to still various others during an assumed “Seldon crisis”. Instead, he did nothing and all the problems took care of themselves.

    Yes on the origin. Asimov’s quote is in the same vein as several others, such as:

    • “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” —Samuel Johnson


    • “I do not believe in violence; it is the last resource of fools.” —H. Rider Haggard (spoken by Lady Anne Bellamy in Dawn.)


  3. The quote, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” is one of my favorites. It’s from the Foundation series. Specifically, Salvor Hardin, first mayor of Terminus.

    That character also said another of my favorite lines: “Sometimes it pays to be obvious. Especially if you have a reputation for subtlety.”

    And yes, I knew that without googling. 😉

    It’s been so long since I read the Foundation series that I don’t remember many details, though I found (and still find) the premise fascinating. -rc

  4. A variation of this is from one of my favorite webcomics, Schlock Mercenary:

    Ch’vorthq: Captain, you realize that violence is the last resort of the stupid?
    Tagon: Oh, absolutely. Mercenaries are bright enough to resort to violence long before last resorts are required.

    (Forgive the art, it does improve.)

  5. I too have used the violence quote for years.

    I disagree with the idea that violence is ever a good solution. Which I think is the point of the quote. Take Putin for example. He has not changed much if at all since he came to power. Our incompetence therefore was in not hamstringing his ability to wage war a long time ago. Our previous incompetence has led us to a point where violence is the only solution left.

    Of course this begs the idea that we are not only competent, but very long thinking so I usually add a corollary to the quote, saying, “I am not always competent”. I don’t think it is a shame to be stuck in the position of this last refuge, but if we admit that getting to this point means we made mistakes earlier, then we can examine our actions that led to this point and maybe do better next time.

    As for brainstorming and creativity. I think you will find in Dr. Asimov’s essay the suggestion that creative people are best left in isolation to think. As a teacher who has often tried to get students to brainstorm I have learned that truth. If you give people time to create their list of ideas alone before getting into groups and sharing, you will have a much more productive brainstorming session.

    Just as important though is time. Which you will also notice in the essay. We don’t make connections or recognize good ideas right away. If we take a break, even for a few seconds, that is often when a solution comes. It’s why that aha moment happens so often in the shower. That unfocused thinking time allows our unconscious brain to come in and highlight connections our conscious brain just can’t see, or something like that.

  6. I’m inclined to agree with Asimov, but coming from another direction.

    Decades ago two co-workers and I discussed the different martial arts ‘schools’ we were training in, their goals, and stories of how ‘masters’ could NOT be attacked or taken by surprise. Shortly we all saw the same penny drop: the ultimate goal of all martial arts training is — NOT to need it!

    I stopped after a few months, frightened by how much power is locked in the human body and how easy it is to unleash. Nevertheless I retained a valuable gift: to this day I know when I am being directly observed, and can locate the observer.

    [I once tumbled a private detective agency trying to stake-out my neighborhood… though I don’t know who the target was, or why. Maybe they were trainees.]

    BTW I don’t understand Johnson’s comment — unless he was referring to corrupt politicians?


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