Bernhard Hugo Goetz apparently didn't plan on being a hero.

But what the New York "subway vigilante" did last Dec. 22 tapped into a fantasy that resonates deeply in the American soul: lone justice, an individual battling evil. It is a fantasy to be found in the superhero comic books, in the exploits of the Lone Ranger and Dirty Harry, in the world of the private detective from Sam Spade to Mike Hammer. At 37, Goetz belongs to a generation that grew up watching Richard Boone play a TV gunslinger whose calling card said, "Have Gun, Will Travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco," and saw Charles Bronson avenge the murder of his wife by shooting street thugs in the movie "Death Wish."

The New York Daily News found that citizens approved of Goetz's shooting the four youths who approached him on the subway, 49 to 31 percent. Roy Innis, the head of the Congress of Racial Equality, called it "the greatest contribution to crime reduction in the last 25 to 30 years." Journalists dubbed Goetz the " 'Death Wish' Vigilante" after the 1974 film.

Wire Goetz, New York. The Ultimate Neighborhood Watch.

"The reason this guy is being responded to so favorably," says the director of American studies at Georgetown University, Ronald Johnson, "is rooted in frustration with safety in the streets . . . This guy stood up and exercised his right to respond, to protect himself."

Adds University of Maryland criminologist Lawrence Sherman: "He's a new role model. There in fact could be a lot more individual acts of violence as a result."

The Goetz case comes to Washington today as a Senate judiciary panel headed by Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) opens hearings to look into issues it raises.

According to a spokesman, Specter sees the Goetz incident as " 'the kind of thing that happens when law and order break down.' He wants to know if law and order has failed in the New York City subway system" and, if so, what can be done about it. Scheduled witnesses include Goetz's chief defense lawyer, Joseph Kelner; James B. Meehan, chief of the New York City transit police; Curtis Sliwa, head of the Guardian Angels, a New York-based citizen patrol group; and academic experts on justice and vigilantism.

Kelner himself has been beaten unconscious by a mugger. Goetz reportedly told a friend he hired Kelner because the attorney could understand his feelings.

"Mr. Goetz is not a vigilante," says Kelner. ". . . The truth and the facts are that he acted reasonably and understandably in a life-threatening situation . . . He did not take the law into his own hands."

From an academic and historical point of view, Goetz doesn't fall within the American vigilante tradition of group action outside the law. Classic vigilantism, says University of Oregon historian Richard Maxwell Brown, was a phenomenon of the frontier, where established citizens usually led "committees of vigilance," as they were called. President Andrew Jackson once advised settlers to punish a murderer by lynching, and Theodore Roosevelt, when he was a rancher, sought unsuccessfully to join a vigilante movement.

Brown, scheduled to testify in today's Senate hearings, is an expert on vigilantism. He contributed to the 1969 report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and his widely respected book "Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism" examines the phenomenon in depth.

According to Brown, the 19th-century vigilante groups often followed quasi-legal procedures. They were intellectually defended on grounds of the need for self-preservation, the right of popular sovereignty -- and plain economics. In 1858, vigilantes in northern Indiana paraded under a banner that said, "No expense to the County." Brown concluded that, to an extent, the early vigilante movement was "a positive facet of the American experience." Vigilantism in this form is rare these days. One possible modern example was the 1982 shooting of the town bully in Skidmore, Mo. Some 20 to 40 people surrounded him in his pickup truck in broad daylight. Someone shot him dead and reportedly almost everyone saw it, but no one talked. Local authorities and the FBI were unable to crack the case.

After about 1890, something more sinister -- what Brown calls "neovigilantism" -- began spreading. Groups worked outside the law for their own political ends. The victims tended to be Catholics, Jews, immigrants, blacks, political radicals and others. Three distinct Ku Klux Klan movements targeted blacks. By the 1960s, Brown testified, "a new wave of vigilantism is a real prospect today."

It didn't happen. "It is a mystery to me, the restraint that people had," says Brown of the modern period.

Instead, community patrols and Neighborhood Watch programs, working within the law while fueled by what Brown calls a "vigilante impulse," proliferated. The Guardian Angels, which began in New York, have by now spread to many cities across the country and in Canada. The modern groups have tended to work with the police. There have, though, been exceptions; where there have been racial tensions, groups have organized along racial lines to defend turf.

Brown thinks that respect for the rule of law has become ingrained in American life. No longer do public leaders condone vigilantism. New York Mayor Edward I. Koch decried vigilantism in the wake of public support for Goetz, and President Reagan said, "There is a breakdown of civilization if people start taking the law in their own hands."

In many ways, Goetz is a typical crime victim. After a 1981 beating by muggers in a New York subway station, he reportedly became frightened and preoccupied, outraged that police detained him six hours while releasing one of his attackers in three; and further outraged at being turned down for a pistol permit. The facts aren't all in, but apparently Goetz felt threatened when the four youths riding the IRT asked for $5. After shooting and wounding them (one remained in a coma yesterday), he fled, later turning himself in to face a charge of attempted murder -- and a hero's welcome in the city, where a Daily News poll found that 7 percent of all residents have been mugged in a subway.

Millions of Americans are frustrated victims of crime. The 1982 report of the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime concluded, "Somewhere along the way, the system began to serve lawyers and judges and defendants, treating the victim with institutionalized disinterest."

Bernhard Goetz, it seems, wasn't going to take it anymore.

Brown, the vigilantism expert, sees Goetz as "an isolated incident, but maybe I'm all wrong . . . What might put it in a vigilante context is this: It's been reported that in his apartment house there was a group he was very active in, he was very concerned about security. That's a little bit like these community patrols, which are in the vigilante tradition."

The University of Maryland's Sherman points out that Goetz may fit another quasi-vigilante tradition in America: the small storekeeper who "has been held up many times and who keeps a gun illegally and shoots at armed robbers."

Though the gun may be illegal, and the storekeeper may go beyond the strict legal definition of self-defense in shooting back, Sherman says, convictions of such storekeepers are rare.

"With maturation, we learn to deal more thoughtfully with our strong emotions, but that doesn't always take place," says Dr. Stephen M. Sonnenberg, a psychoanalyst and scholar-in-residence at the Washington School of Psychiatry. ". . . An act of vigilantism is not simply an act of the id. It involves all of the psychic systems. It involves a moral judgment, a decision, cognition . . .

"If you look at what happened in New York, you can at least speculate. The man was attacked and made a conscious decision to carry a weapon. Before he left the train he reportedly helped a couple of people up. We don't think of this as simply a violent outburst. We see this person was apparently thinking something through . . ."

Another psychiatrist, Dr. Judd Marmor, says that when people feel deeply frustrated, " their anger is really at the authority figures who are not protecting them. That's why a lot of people are sympathetic . . . They share the feelings of frustration, and they're pleased when someone acts out their anger."

Promoting this kind of response, says Marmor, is an "ethical climate of our time that affects our attitudes toward violence and retribution toward those who offend us . . . The pervading morale of our country today is we're not going to let people push us around. That comes from the top down. It's part of the prevailing ethic of our political climate today."

As for Goetz himself, Marmor, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, speculated that "he must have felt frustrated and decided somewhere along the way if Daddy wasn't going to take care of him he was going to have to take care of himself."

There hasn't been anything quite like the popular response to the Goetz phenomenon in recent memory, but some experts on social behavior believe his popularity rests on a delicate balance.

"He was one shot away from not being a vigilante," says Albert Record, associate dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. "If the bullet had gone through one of those four and hit a child or an elderly woman, how would people feel then? They'd say, 'He's not a vigilante, he's a kook.' "

"The danger of vigilante justice," warns Georgetown's Johnson, "is that it can incorporate a new evil. Look at the whole suppression and oppression of blacks. At the time, you would have had a good argument from the man in the street that they the KKK were simply . . . protecting their women from rape."

Since Goetz is white and his attackers black, Dane Archer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, raises this question: "What if the races were reversed? Presumably the public reaction would have been very different. There would have been much less support" for a black vigilante. In Archer's view, race may have played a role in the widespread public "presumption that the young men are guilty and Goetz was merely acting in self-defense."

Similarly, Alvin F. Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says, "There would be much more questioning about Goetz's behavior if those were white kids. The public is rather callous about this. They have no sympathy for that young black kid who is paralyzed from the waist down . . . I think there's been an attempt to make these kids subhuman in order to justify what Goetz did . . . The punishment doesn't fit the crime at all."

Support for Goetz among blacks is only slightly less than white support, according to the Daily News poll (49 percent versus 52 percent). But Poussaint says, "I think that some of the black people are getting sucked into supporting Goetz and not appreciating the racist elements that may be in the white public response to it . . . Would Goetz have gotten on a subway and felt that white kids would attack him?"

Many experts find the public support for Goetz the most fascinating aspect of the entire affair.

"What's interesting is so many people approve of it, it means there is a problem," says Tom Plaut of the behavioral sciences research branch of the National Institute of Mental Health.

In 1964, in a case that horrified the nation, New Yorker Kitty Genovese, screaming for help, was murdered within earshot of dozens of her neighbors. The distance from Kitty Genovese to Bernhard Goetz is two decades, but Plaut wonders if anything has really changed. "I was raised in New York," he says. "I was in New York two weeks ago, and the graffiti on the subway . . . The obscenities don't bother me, but it indicates something amiss in the social fabric. Every square inch, the whole thing is so defaced. It's as though it's a place nobody cared about, an alien world."

Plaut, in his fifties now, rode the subways to school. Now, he says, no one would "rush to the help of someone who is attacked," and a person might feel justified in strong defense measures.

Remnants of America's frontier psychology remain, Plaut says. "Look at the strength of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association. It's not basically the hunters that are the strength of the NRA. It's that hunters and nonhunters think they may have to defend themselves, that they can't count on society to defend them."

Indeed, each month the NRA magazines present examples of successful self-defense culled from papers around the country: "A burglar trying to enter the home of a Kansas City, Kan., woman was scared off twice within several hours by police who responded to the resident's complaints," says a recent item. "He gained entry on the third attempt, but the woman, who had armed herself with a handgun, shot and killed him."

"It's self-defense," says NRA spokeswoman Denise Tray Rosson. "We believe that every citizen has the right to be armed to protect their life and property. Vigilantism goes to an extreme . . . We don't support the notion of private citizens taking the law into their own hands in going out and looking for criminals, but people do feel strongly about their right to pursue happiness without being threatened by criminals and thugs."

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lois Haight Herrington, who chaired the recent task force on victims of crime, says she sees no connection between programs like Neighborhood Watch and vigilantism. "I hate to see these two things linked," she says. "It puts a pejorative connotation on a very positive contribution of citizens."

She also speaks of the importance of citizen involvement in the criminal justice system. The latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that only 48 of every 100 violent crimes are reported; in only eight are there convictions; in only two are the criminals incarcerated.

To a large extent, the conviction and incarceration rates are low because victims "are treated so badly" in the legal process and drop out, she says.

Sociologist Donald Black, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, has an interesting twist on it all. His research shows that many crimes in America -- including murders, robberies, and many forms of vandalism -- are on close examination forms of what Black calls "self-help justice." That is, folks getting even with one another through criminal acts carried out "in the name of justice."

"Conventional legal scholars like to say law replaced self-help in the Middle Ages," says Black. "That's grossly mistaken. Self-help continues on a large scale in our society and . . . when processed by legal authorities, is usually treated quite leniently."

Black thinks Americans may have developed "an overdependence on law," expecting authorities to take care of everything for them. He once suggested, in an article, cutting police protection in order to stimulate a self-help mentality among citizens.

"Goetz said, 'The hell with it. If I have to go to jail to protect myself, I'm going to do it.' "

After the Goetz case broke, Georgetown sociology professor William F. McDonald began thinking about the "Oresteia," Aeschylus' trilogy of 458 B.C. tracing the cycle of vengeance that haunted the House of Atreus: Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, then was slain in retribution by his wife, Clytemnestra. She was killed by Agamemnon's son Orestes and his sister, Electra. And, in turn, Orestes was to be hounded endlessly by the Furies. Orestes appealed to the Olympian god Apollo, and the goddess Athena then conducted a trial before 12 citizens, casting the deciding vote that freed Orestes.

"Let no man live uncurbed by law, nor curbed by tyranny," Athena charged the jury. In the end, institutionalized human and divine justice combined to stop the cycle of bloodletting.

"I had been thinking of the vigilante movement all weekend, watching 'Agronsky and Company,' " says McDonald. "It seemed to me their time frame and their perspective on the issue was too small. You're talking about the institution of human justice . . . and living with the system, which has horrible flaws to it."

McDonald added a personal note:

"Two weeks ago I was robbed by the police in Mexico City. I felt vulnerable, a tremendous sense of loss. It sort of hung in with me . . . It shakes you up . . . I went away feeling sort of de-balled, less a man."

Afterward, he felt edgy, hostile; the other day, a salesman was rude and McDonald somehow "couldn't muster the civility" to let it pass.

"We had a nasty tiff."