AN AMERICAN VIEW

The vigilante as a dubious hero

Fred Bruning February 11 1985
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The vigilante as a dubious hero

Fred Bruning February 11 1985

The vigilante as a dubious hero

Fred Bruning

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Riding a subway in New York City long has struck the fainthearted as a singularly foolish enterprise. The cars are dirty, the passengers aloof, the noise considerable, the crush of humanity so intense at rush hour that one may fear for his quota of oxygen. And yet ambience is not the real issue. Those who warn one another to stay off the trains are not primarily concerned about smudge marks on their fedoras or the prospect of being epoxied to a person sorely in need of shave and shower. What worries folks most, it seems, is that they will feel a tap on the shoulder and subsequently be instructed in rasping whisper to deliver their wallets, or else.

It is the or else that causes particular terror because, as every New Yorker is aware, the papers and television seem filled these days with stories describing how this or that innocent party was not only relieved of his cash and credit cards but of his dignity and, sometimes, a pint of blood as well. Far less of this thuggery occurs in real life than in the life of the imagination, but throughout the boroughs people are afraid, and their fear is valid, no matter how tentatively founded on fact.

This is not to say, please, that paranoia is the problem and that crime is of no consequence. Not at all. Incidents do occur, and they are ugly. But it is wrong to suggest that merely by stepping onto an uptown local the traveller leaves hope behind. The peril is not so clear and present. People ride the subways for years without once being bashed or fleeced. Some even enjoy the transit system, graffiti and all.

Let us assume that Bernhard Hugo Goetz did not fit into the latter category. Indeed, so profound were his concerns regarding safety that while riding the subway on Dec. 22 he carried an unlicensed handgun and, before long, determined that it was time to commence firing. Further introduction of Goetz hardly seems necessary; he is, of course, the 37-year-old electronics expert who shot four black teenagers—an act that has captured the imagination of the country and provided radio talk show hosts enough material for a decade.

Coast to coast, Americans have been discussing this unlikely celebrity—his motives, his background, his state of mind, his place in history—and much of the sentiment seems to be on the gunman’s side. When Goetz surrendered

more than a week after the incident, a defence fund instantly materialized, and contributions sprang from the city like leaks from a water main. Politicians, including President Reagan, decried freelance acts of retribution but said, to be sure, they could understand how a person, if pushed far enough, might do something rash. Social scientists were hastily summoned to interpret the ethical and cultural implications of Goetz’s behavior.

So far as he is concerned, Goetz seems not to want any of the notoriety attending his deed. Tracked for the first time by the now-familiar horde of reporters and paparazzi, he uttered but one word—“vultures”—and trudged away in the company of arresting officers. Since, he has shown even less interest in stardom. What moved him to violence on Dec. 22 was a personal, not a public, matter. In 1981 Goetz was robbed and beaten outside a subway station in lower

A vengeful citizen fires five shots. Four young men of dubious character are wounded. Has anything changed?’

Manhattan. Associates say the incident had a profound effect. Bernhard Goetz decided he needed a gun.

The four young men who approached Goetz during that fateful subway ride on the IRT No. 2 train knew nothing of his unhappy past nor had they insights as to his mood of the moment. Most important, they were not aware that Goetz, slight, bespectacled and looking for all the world like an easy mark, was packing a .38-calibre revolver. Had they access to such vital intelligence, the teenagers certainly would have looked elsewhere for a long-term loan of $5. That is what Goetz says the youths demanded of him—$5, which, the teens explained later, they intended to spend at a video arcade. Here, then, was the electronics wizard, Goetz, being menaced (Goetz, at least, believes that he was being menaced) by four kids eagerly anticipating a few ill-gained rounds of Space Invaders or Baby Pac-Man. That three of the teenagers carried the type of screwdriver used to pry open video coin boxes suggests these were not exactly virtuous fellows. Indeed, all had arrest records and those of us who sim-

ply sigh and say yes, yes, but the kids came from a tough part of town demean the huge majority of black teenagers who would no more rifle a change box or hassle a subway passenger than they would take a midwinter dip in the East River.

By now, all of America has memorized what occurred next. Goetz said, “I have $5 for each of you,” drew the .38 he had purchased in Florida when he was denied a permit in New York and squeezed off five shots. Each of the loan seekers was hit, two of them in the back. Goetz is said next to have assisted a passenger who had been sent sprawling and fled the scene, only to present himself on New Year’s Eve to police in Concord, N.H.

Before a month went by, grand jurors in Manhattan voted to indict Goetz only on weapons charges. There would be no allegations of attempted murder—a determination that troubled those who felt Goetz, even if acting in self-defence, was obligated to account for his actions. Shirley Cabey, whose son, Darrel, 19, was the last shot by Goetz and now lies comatose with a severed spine, issued a statement through her attorney. Darrel Cabey’s mother said the grand jury action only proved that “the government is telling people that it is all right to go out and pick up guns and shoot black people.”

Government is doing nothing of the sort, but, like the fear of those who broadly condemn city life, Shirley Cabey’s perception of what is true must be respected. Other blacks have reacted angrily, and even those who say they can understand why Goetz shot the four teenagers may have trouble viewing the man as a hero. To many whites, after all, that is precisely what Goetz has become. It is as though his most ardent defenders are saying, See, this is what happens when decent people are shoved around once too often.

But decency plays no part in this story. A vengeful citizen fired five shots. Four young men of dubious character lay wounded on the floor of a subway car. One is in a coma and could die. Has anything changed? Criminals have not become Peace Corps volunteers. Anxiety only increases. Sooner or later someone else will jam an unlicensed pistol into his belt and leave the house persuaded that, like Bernhard Goetz, he can protect his flanks and win the adoration of

his neighbors too._

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York