Self-defence and violence on a visit to ‘the Big Apple’

Dateline: New York, Summer 2022

It’s a quiet Wednesday afternoon and the third and final day of a prolonged family visit to Manhattan in ‘the city that never sleeps’ means we are touring New York on one of their famous open-top red bus tours.

It’s now over thirty years since I first visited this city and went on the first of these tours with my late sister Nuala. The skyline has changed a little in that period but not a lot. I remember going up to the top of the Empire State building in the 80s and looking out over this vast island of concrete skyscrapers and being awestruck. I also remember a visit when my brother Donal drove us down to the two World Trade Centre towers, where he casually parked his car almost directly outside the buildings and walked in without as much as a suggestion of heavy security or a major police presence.

This time around, it’s a very different tour to the same site with a very different tone too. We get off the bus at Vesey street and walk around the corner to see the place where the two old towers once stood – and spend an hour or two instead looking into the rushing waterfalls of the new 9/11 memorial there. We then walked through the new vast underground museum that opened to mark one of the most outrageous terrorist attacks of all time.

Irish surnames

The first thing that hits you at the water feature is the number of Irish names inscribed on the memorial. The O’Briens are here, so too the Farrells, Bradys, Kiernans and O’Reillys – just some of the hundreds and thousands of poor people who lost their lives in such a brutal way on the fateful day.

2,753 were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre –  including 265 on the hijacked planes. 343 members of the New York City Fire Department died here too and one of the most poignant scenes in the new memorial centre in the sight of a fire engine – or at least what was left of it after the planes hit.

The firemen and women from Unit 33 in Manhattan were simply doing their job on September 11th, 2001 when they made their way to the scene. Once there, they went into the towers – all 18 of them – only for the building to collapse on them within minutes – the melted remains of the ladders the only reminder of what happened here.

It’s a solemn place to visit and the truth is after about an hour there one is so immersed in the horror of it all, that one wants to leave. But I make sure our two young sons read every inscription and every detail of the terrorists who did this and are aware of the cost of extremism on so many innocent people.

Back on the red bus and later on the tour, there’s an opportunity to get off again in a busy district near Times Square. In a street nearby, I find a pub owned by a friend and we enjoy a quiet drink in the heavy heat of the late afternoon before something most unpleasant happens…

Violent turn

The bar was very quiet when we entered but it quickly filled up after 5 pm when the nearby offices emptied for the day. Among the new patrons to arrive was a woman who was clearly not very welcome. She started a conversation with two men at the bar but it was clear the bar staff were not too happy with her being there and she was soon asked to leave. It seemed there had been a previous confrontation involving this woman at the bar. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to happen next however…

As the senior bar tender came out from behind the counter, the woman was asked again to leave but, instead of complying with the request, she reached for her handbag and uttered the following words to the woman who was asking her politely to go: “Stay away from me B****! Don’t put your hands on me or I’ll cut you. I don’t mind doing the time!”

Needless to say, all present including my 13-year-old son, were more than a little taken back with the scene unfolding before our eyes but thankfully in the eight or nine minutes that followed the bar staff dealt with the situation in a safe, secure and thoroughly professional fashion – eventually opening the door and escorting the lady outside.

As she left, she chose to repeat the same verbal onslaught once again – only this time firmly reminding them that she “knew her rights” and had the “right to defend” herself.


Later that evening, while continuing to counsel our younger son, we talked again about what had happened and how it made the whole argument about self-defence and gun control all the more realistic and relevant to us while visiting America. From a distance, we Irish sometimes fail to understand the level of resistance when it comes to political efforts to take guns away from the general public in the US – especially in the aftermath of huge loss of life in a school shooting. However, here we had a real life situation where people trying protect themselves while keeping law and order in a bar might indeed choose to have a gun on hand to try and escape from major injury or even death.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Second Amendment gives all individuals here the right to have guns and use them for self-defence. At the same time, all States have self-defence laws that spell out the situations where you are allowed to use deadly force – including a gun – to defend yourself or someone else.

The small print on these self-defence laws is even more revealing. The American law governing self-defence does not excuse any violent act just because another person struck the first blow or made a violent threat. Traditional self-defence laws require a person who is being attacked or threatened with an imminent attack to act reasonably, retreat if possible without taking any physical action, and use only the amount of force reasonably necessary to fend off the attacker.

All of this is great in a law book or a courtroom but in the heat of that moment in the bar in Manhattan, one can look at it in a very different way. How much time for instance, has any person to weigh up the amount of reasonable force they should use – after being told they are going to be cut by somebody who has no fear of going to jail for committing the crime?

American gun crime is on the increase all the time and there are continuous efforts to curtail the use of guns in self-defence but from the drama of this, our last day in New York, you can also see the other side of the story. It’s certainly not as straightforward as some might think.