I think we all love the great American Verdict which is uttered at irregular times and which illustrates the American character more or less.
The New York subway shooting has produced what seems to be a near-unanimous verdict in favor of self-defense when you are approached by punks and hassled sorely.
Needless to say, hardly anything is yet known of the circumstances in which a passenger shot four teen-agers on the train after they asked him for $5. For all anybody really knows, the passenger is a psychopath who gets kicks from blasting tots.
But the mere absence of fact and evidence has never prevented one of these big public reactions. We know what happened (never mind the plain fact that we don't know at all) and we say the guy was right to shoot.
The general public has doped it all out in two minutes. These hoods came at this guy with sharpened screwdrivers and started sneering and snarling at him, intending to rip him off and maybe kill him dead. Happens all the time. This very passenger, in fact, was mugged in the past.
We think of the time we were accosted by two punks on L Street and the time the nice lady was mugged in Chevy Chase walking home from the Presbyterian Church (and the Baptist, Episcopal and Catholic churches on the circle are probably just as dangerous) and one day Uncle Will was out there weeding his dahlias in broad daylight and etc., etc.
There is not a human in the capital who cannot run through the litany of outrage, winding up with the inevitable Amen:
"And in those six cases they only caught one guy and he got off scot-free and if they shot a few of those bastards it would be a good thing, let me tell you."
But some of us -- fearless observers of the American psyche -- have learned not to rely too much on these great instant verdicts when they are proclaimed. If we learn the four teen-agers were crippled and soliciting contributions for the Wounded Seagull Defense Fund and the shooter's neighbors all testify he has broken down their front doors in rage on seven occasions and is author of a booklet, "What's Wrong With Negroes," we might change our minds, and not think the shootings were such a fine idea, after all.
The American Verdict commonly breaks into two parts, the Gut Verdict and the Mulled Verdict, the latter reached on those sorrowful occasions in which we cannot dodge the facts or the evidence brought out some days after the event.
Few American Verdicts were more unanimous than the one on Vietnam. This was a just war, and only a few "nervous Nellies" were opposed to it.
Same with Watergate. It was obvious to all decent folk, starting with The New York Times, that here was a mountain made of a molehill; the result of misguided zeal or yellow journalism or whatever you wanted to call it.
Unfortunately for our usual composure and inertia, we were not able to abide by our first gut reactions in Vietnam and Watergate. There was no dodging the tides of evidence and testimony in both cases. The great American Verdict reversed itself completely and it didn't take long once the facts started pouring in.
Sometimes, of course, the first intoxicated verdict, reached without knowing any more about the circumstances than a hedgehog in hell, stands unchallenged forever. As in the Korean Air Lines case, in which everybody saw instantly the evil of the Russians shooting down an unarmed plane laden with innocent passengers.
If you were to raise the question, even now, why it is right to use force to stop a perceived threat on a subway but not right to use force to stop a perceived threat to a nation's industrial and defense installations, you will be thought a kook at best and a traitor at worst.
Before any of us had to temper or revise or reverse our Korean Air Lines verdict, however, the matter dropped off the front pages to oblivion and we were spared the hours of additional fact and testimony that emerged in such cases as Watergate.
The Korean case, in fact, was an ideal sensation, permitting an agreeable flood of adrenaline and wise adages about evil in the Kremlin, without all that tiresome stuff that investigators and lawyers dredge up. So the original verdict stands, that a nation has no right to self-defense against unidentified planes hundreds of miles within national territory. The great Subway Verdict will also stand (Any Man Has the Right to Shoot When Threatened) if it, too, drops out of the papers. The press, however, for all its alleged faults, is not likely to let the subway case drop.
The teen-agers will have lawyers who will certainly produce whole loads of hitherto unknown evidence. Not only will the arguments on behalf of the kids be reported, they will be reported in some detail and with some gusto, along with the statistics on muggings, rapes, percentage of unsolved crimes and the like.
Since we have not heard yet what will be heard in court, we cannot yet know whether our present verdict (Thank God for Marksmen) will stand or whether we shall have to reverse it to No Man Should Be Accuser, Judge and Executioner All in One.
When people speak of the American Verdict, a term columnists use when they mean people who have written or phoned, you have to distinguish whether the great verdict is gut reaction or mulled-over reaction. Whether the full facts were known at the time of the verdict or whether they were only known later. As a practical matter, you should never bet too heavily on American gut verdicts. Some people collected nicely on Vietnam and Watergate bets when they laid their money on the minority view early, sensing profitably that there is often more than meets the eye.