“A blade at the throat has an authority unlike any other.”
– from Ravages of Honor, by Monalisa Foster
This observation is made – skating around spoilers – when one man, with a not entirely inconsiderable position in the government, tried to take an innocent woman to a horrible fate, and literally found the blade of her protector touching his throat. He took that as a “no,” which was apparently a monumental accomplishment for him, and managed to keep his head. Barely.
Authority has long been an interesting concept to me. I still remember learning in college about five basic types of authority, five types of leadership. In order, from the least effective and most used, to the most effective and least used, they were, if I recall right:
Coercive, based on force and punishment
Reward, based on what one hopes to gain
Legitimate, based on official, governing authority
Expert, based on expertise in a given area
Referent, based on pure affection, respect, and trust
Obviously, the “blade to the throat” qualifies most easily under the “coercive” category. It has no qualms based on respect, no reverence of expertise, no consideration for any legal power, no reward to add as an extra incentive… and no care for any punishments that may follow afterward. It doesn’t care how rich or influential or popular one may be. It doesn’t care how invulnerable one has made oneself in one’s own mind. Death is simple in that way.
There are many ways there are to die, and one of them is guaranteed to find you. A sword is just a rather pointed reminder of that.
Yet, even the authority of the sword only carries as much weight as the one who wields it. You never see someone trying to talk or otherwise prevent a weapon from killing them: they always focus on the person wielding it. A sword literally doesn’t care whose throat it may cut, and it has no will of its own. But if the person on the wrong end of it can, in some way, overcome the will of the person holding the blade, then the blade itself is useless in their hand.
The sword, then, isn’t just a reminder: it’s a statement. If one has the will to enforce that statement, that is what makes it useful. That requires understanding that the blade, or any other weapon, isn’t meant for a threat, it’s meant for action. It’s only effective when one fully intends to use it. Ironically, that is the only time one can successfully not use it. Provided, of course, the person at the other end values his or her own life sufficiently. Don’t even get me started on people who are willing to die, that is a whole other discussion.
All of this is very like what we find among animals. They bare their fangs, growl and roar, look as large and dangerous as possible, whatever it takes to issue the primal warning of the wild: Do not challenge me. There is more danger here, more risk of harm or even death, than you want, because, if necessary, I will kill you to keep you from killing me. Go away.
Which suddenly makes me more appreciative of every other form of authority we humans try. The efficient brutality of violence has its natural appeal, and sometimes it is absolutely necessary, and, in truth, perhaps it must always be present in the background. Yet, it is everything else we try that proves our humanity, that we are not just animals.