On Armed Robbery, Slack, and How We Treat Others

By Andrew Hyman

Editor’s note: I know I don’t have all the answers, but I think this is a conversation worth having. These are my opinions as they stand today, but I am completely open to debate. If you’d like to discuss further, or have a critique of my reasoning and perspective, please email me at hyman@chicagobooth.edu.

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On Monday, February 11th, four suspects in an armed robbery were involved in a car accident near the University of Chicago campus. They fled on foot into the campus, leading to a lockdown alert until their eventual arrest, in Saieh Hall, near Booth’s Harper Center.

Later that afternoon, a Booth student posted on Slack about certain assumptions that arose in her mind when the lockdown notice went out. She found herself thinking about the circumstances that lead people to perpetrate violent acts against other humans. Instead of jumping to conclusions, our colleague invited us honor or at least recognize the bigger picture.

Another student reacted with a different take. Based on his experience growing up in a rough neighborhood, and having been victimized by armed robbers multiple times, he felt no sympathy for the alleged perpetrators and thought they should be held responsible for their actions.

These two perspectives reflect two poles of potential human response to tragic acts. We can feel compassion for the perpetrators, who may have faced difficult circumstances that led to violent, antisocial behavior. Or we can feel desire for retribution, to hold individuals accountable for actions that hurt others, punishing them in the hopes of teaching them a lesson and deterring others from similar acts.

Watching the conversation play out in real time, I thought this would be a fascinating topic for debate. How should we treat people who commit violent acts against their fellow human beings? How much blame should we place on the individual vs. the society that let them down? What approach will be most effective to ensure that, in the future, these types of heinous acts are as infrequent as possible? And what are the implications on individuals and their communities?

During the online exchange that followed these comments, we saw some discussion about the proper social and individual responses to violent crime. But we also saw name-calling, personal attacks, and insensitivity towards the perspectives of other people. People on both sides of the argument engaged in behavior that hardly reflects the “best of Booth.” We saw the conversation descend from attacks on ideas to attacks on individuals, which at best leads to an unproductive discussion and at worst silences people, hurts relationships, and makes Booth a less tolerant and thoughtful community.

One of the reasons I came to Booth was because it is part of the University of Chicago, one of the most forceful defenders of open debate and intellectual rigor in our country today. The leaders in our organization provide steadfast support for the free exchange of ideas and opinions. But it doesn’t matter what the institution stands for if the people within don’t embody it.

If you see someone behaving in a way that is strongly disagreeable to you, why pour fuel on the fire by responding in kind? How much better would it be to offer your own reasoned opinion about where this person’s commentary went wrong, and why it is a hurtful, hateful, or destructive view? Then the entire discussion to become a learning opportunity for all people involved: the participants in the discussion and the observers reading along. If we debate why someone feels compassion is the right response, why retribution is the right response, or what other forces are involved, we have a chance to evaluate their arguments, evaluate our own biases, and to push back when necessary in an appropriate manner.

Viktor Frankl, a psychologist, Holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, once said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” An instant messenger platform often shrinks the space between a stimulus and a response, but as future leaders of our communities, companies, and countries, I hope we can all take a deep breath before responding, and seize the opportunity for both growth and freedom.