The Broken Dojo Theory

On December 22, 1984, a man named Bernhard Goetz left his small apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, heading for the subway station.

Bernhard was a man in his late thirties, quite slender, with light brown hair and glasses. This day was a little chilly, as expected since it was the Saturday just before Christmas, so he was dressed in jeans and a windbreaker.

At the subway station, which was located at Fourteenth Street and Sevent Avenue, Bernhard bought a ticket and prepared to board the number two downtown express train.

At this time, the subway system of New York was less than perfect. To see a wall or train not covered in graffiti – top to bottom – was a rare sight. Dimly lit, dark platforms, late trains (there was a fire somewhere on the system every day, and derailment every other week), filthy cars and floors littered with trash was the standard.

Today we have a hard time understanding how anyone in their right mind would want to pay for, and use, this subway system (indeed, fare-beating was so commonplace that is cost the Transit Authority 150 million dollars a year in lost revenue). However, if you wanted to go somewhere in New York at that time, the metro was still one of the most convenient ways.

The train finally came.

And Bernhard, or Bernie as his friends called him, entered the car through the rearmost door, crossed the aisle and took a seat on the long bench across from the door.

Next to him sat four young black men.

There were about twenty other people in Bernies car, but most people sat in the other end, avoiding the four teenagers, because they were, as eywitnesses would say later, “acting rowdy”.

Bernie seemed a bit oblivious.

“How are ya?” one of the four suddenly asked Bernie, as he was sitting down on the dirty bench. The teenager’s name was Troy, and he was lying almost prone on the bench.

Bernie pretended he didn’t hear anything.

Troy stood up, and walked over to Bernie with one of his friends, named Barry. “Got five bucks?” they asked, standing in front of Bernie. A third youth, James, stood on the side gesturing towards a bulge in his pocket, indicating he may have a gun there, and Bernie should better listen.

Bernie looked up.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Give me five dollars” Troy repeated, irritated.

Bernie looked into his eyes and, as he would later describe it, Troy’s “eyes were shiny and he was really enjoying himself… He had a big smile on his face.”

And that was the the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Bernie resolutely reached into his pocket and from beneath his blue windbreaker pulled out a chrome-plated five-shot Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, firing shots at each of the four youths in turn.

He got them all.

As the fourth member of the group, named Darrell, lay screaming on the ground, Bernie casually walked over to him and said “You don’t look too bad. Here’s another one”, before firing a fifth bullet into Darrell’s spinal cord, paralyzing him for life.

At this point, somebody had pulled the emergency brake, and all the other passangers had fled to the next car.

Except for two women who remained trapped by panic.

Bernie walked over to the first woman and asked politely, “Are you all right?”. “Yes”, she said.

The second woman was lying on the floor, pretending to be dead. “Are you all right?” Bernie asked her too. Twice he had to ask before she eventually nodded yes, too afraid to even speak.

The conductor, who had hurried to the scene, asked Bernie if he was a police officer.

“No”, Bernie said. “I don’t know why I did it… They were trying to rip me off.”

The conductor then asked Bernie for his gun, but he declined. He walked to the front of the car, through the doorway, unhooked the safety chain, jumped down on the tracks and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel. Leaving behind a train filled with passengers scared to death and four youths almost shot to death.

In the following days, the shooting in the subway caused something of a national sensation. The four youths all turned out to have a criminal record, with a total of fourteen arrests, including armed robbery and theft, and three of them had screwdrivers in their pockets.

In the press the four youths seemed like the embodiment of the kind of young thug feared by nearly all city people, and the mysterious gunman who shot them down seemed like an avenging angel. The tabloids even dubbed Bernie the “Subway Vigilante”.

In the streets he became treated as some kind of a hero by the people, a man who fulfilled the secret dark fantasy of every New Yorker who had ever been robbed, mugged or assaulted on the subway.

Bernhard “Bernie” Goetz, became a symbol for a pretty dark and strange time in the history of New York City. A city that was a clear example of what experts refer to as a “Broken Window”, with it’s almost anarchistic subway system as only the tip of the iceberg.

And that is what this post is all about.

The Broken Window Theory

In short, the Broken Window Theory, which was a brainchild of criminologists Wilson and Kelling, basically states that everything is connected to it’s surroundings, and crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If you break a window and nobody repairs it, it sends a signal to other people that nobody cares about that particular building, and it’s probably okay to brake another window. Now there are two broken windows, so nobody cares if there is some graffiti on the wall. Soon there are more broken windows, more graffiti, one thing leads to another and everything escalates.

All because of a single, tiny, broken window that was left unrepaired for too long.

Some people may find this reasoning far-fetched. Nonetheless, it made a man named Bernhard gun down four people in the subway and called a hero for it, something which is completely illogical. The Broken Window Theory explains this, and tells us that behaviour is a function of social context.

Our surroundings.

Bernie was a child of the broken window, as was pretty much everyone else living in the “wrong” place. With “wrong” I mean places that nobody seemed to care about. Though in reality people certainly cared – who wouldn’t want to care about their own subway system? The problem was that it didn’t look like somebody cared, and that sends signals to people.

Wrong signals.

Signals that can prove fatal when sent to somebody who has been exposed to far too many broken windows, for far too many years – and is fed up.

The subway shooting in 1984 changed a lot of things. The people in charge woke up and realized that all of the graffiti, trash and fare-cheating had to be eliminated. If you took a pee on the platform, or threw a bottle, you were going to jail.

To some people – who didn’t really understand the Broken Window Theory – this seemed very illogical. “People get shot in the subway and you start cleaning up trash? Removing graffiti? Shouldn’t you be focusing on educating children about violence instead?” To draw a parallel, it felt as pointless as deciding to scrub the deck of Titanic as it was sinking!

But it worked.

New York City became a nice place to live in.

I know, I’ve been there.

I even took the subway.

It was no problem.

And since Karate can be seen as a microcosm of life in general, with the dojo acting as our primary environment, wouldn’t it be wise to always strive for applying the Broken Window Theory even in the dojo then?

Let me give you an example where we have applied it in our dojo:

As you may, or may not, know we have classes in Kickboxing too along with some other martial arts. And believe me when I say that to a Kickboxer the focus pads are as important as kata is to us. So they get used a lot.

And when something gets used a lot, it wears out quickly.

That’s why we immediately replace pads that have tears, or minor damage. The Broken Window Theory tells us that it’s better to have fewer pads that are in superb condition, than it is to have many pads in bad condition. That way people won’t throw pads, step on them, sit on them or mishandle them in some other rough way.

The same principle applies on all equipment, of course. Makiwara, weapons, mats, mirrors…

Even techniques.

Consider this: How many times have you seen somebody do a technique that isn’t 100% correct? Do you always correct that person? My guess is noyou don’t. Often it’s more convenient to “look the other way”, because face it – almost nobody is going to become the next Bruce Lee. Who cares? A few technical faults here and there aren’t that big a deal. Right?


At least we’d like to think so.

But they are.

And they must be corrected relentlessly from the first time somebody steps into the dojo. Again and again. Until everyone has heard it over and over. And then some more. A breeding ground for future failure simply musn’t exist, unless you want your dojo to turn into a bona fide drive-through McDojo.

Thinking about it, the Broken Window Theory applies even to your own appearence.

Let me create a horrible example:

Imagine a sensei who never cuts his fingernails. One evening, while demonstrating some kumite, he accidentally cuts one student on the forearm, making it bleed. The student doesn’t notice this, and after a few minutes her whole gi jacket is bloody. She is not that good at doing laundry, so the blood never disappears. And for some reason she doesn’t want to buy a new gi.

Other juniors in the dojo see this, and when one of them accidentally rips his gi a little he doesn’t care that much, since they apparently don’t have to look that good anyway. His friend, who also is a beginner, trips on his way to class one evening, and gets his gi all muddy. But he figures it’s probably not a big deal since other people don’t care about their bloody and torn jackets anyway.

Soon more people are letting their nails grow since their sensei has long nails, and more people get accidentally cut. Some people even get nasty infections. Other students are starting too look filthy too. One evening somebody gets trapped with his foot in a torn gi, and stumbles into a mirror, breaking it.

Of course nobody fixes it. So the next week everyone practises mawashi-geri against the other mirrors, and since these students don’t care that much anymore, somebody looks away while kicking, breaking the mirror.

Fast forward a few months, and the dojo is burned to the ground.

With half of the members in hospital, and the rest in jail!

(Sorry, my humor is really bad…)

Okay, so the above example was obviously exaggerated, but you get the gist of the idea. One thing leads to another…

Small things in our immediate environment impact the way we act and think.

I mean, you would never put your feet on the seat of a clean and tidy bus, right? But if there’s trash on the floor and dirt on the seats, with a big puke pool in the corner, you would. Hey, Funakoshi would.

Because you are a human.

We all are.

Even Bernie.

Even Troy, Barry, James and Darrell (the four youths on the subway).

So the lesson to be learnt is the following:

Immediately take care of broken windows. Never neglect to correct seemingly trivial details. Look sharp. Clean the dojo. Broken things should be either fixed or hidden very, very well. Have a nice haircut. Shaved beard. Trimmed mustache. Washed gi. Correctly tied obi (belt). Thoughtful language. Respectful manners. Clean shoes.

We are all intensely sensitive to our environment, and our actions are based on our perception of the world around us.

To put it simple, always be a professional.

And think long-term.

“I decided to shoot as many as I could as quickly as I could. I did a fast draw, and shot with one hand […].  This is not as difficult to do as some might think, and occasionally I give a description of the technique along with a re-enactment.”

– Bernhard Goetz

Or else you might end up like Bernie here.


  • Fleur Hindt
    Love this post.
  • warrioress
    That was...deep.
  • Mike
    Hi Jesse, Enjoying the site and your writings. I've been reading so many of your posts and find myself agreeing with most. But once in a while I do find something I do not agree with. What you've described here is also known as a slippery slope. It is also known as a slippery slope fallacy. The first premiss that a broken window left unfix will lead to the downfall of a city is just unproven, and even though the story of how it is related to NYC sounds interesting, it is just not so, or at least not proven, despite what seems to be a correlation. There are many towns and cities in the US with broken windows that go unfix, and not all of them lead to, or are the reason, for the decay of a city. It is a further error to try and use that as a parallel to the dojo where it is suggested that every deviation from strict form should be immediately jumped on or else the dojo will go into some kind of death spiral, or all the students will go to hell in a hand basket. There is no better way than to demotivated a person's passion for training than to point out every error every time. Often students know they are making a mistake and are working on improving, or they may be focusing on a particular part of their body, purposely not caring so much about another part. Furthermore, bodies are built and move differently. It is unrealistic to expect them to all conform perfectly. For example, what if a person has experienced substNtial muscle loss due to cancer, and, therefore, have to modify a cat stance to higher position because their legs can't support a lower position? There could be many reasons for slight changes, and I do not think students need to go into a dance of explaining how they are not measuring up to perfection in order to keep the strict form police off of them. Those who feel a need to point out every deviation do so more out of a need to control rather than to help, I would suggest. As a side note, corrections should come from the sensei or one or two of the highest ranking assistants. How annoying is it when someone who thinks they have things down pat no matter what their belt is, and often not much senior than oneself, come over and start fixing one's form. The fact is, students are not windows, and a fallacy such as the slippery slope should not be applied to them or the dojo. Good instructors and assistants should know when to apply the breaks and when to let things run for a while freely, giving students at times some leeway in form.

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