The stream of self-righteousness that courses through the American psyche ran at flood strength last week. Following the exoneration by a New York jury of Bernhard Goetz, the pistol-packin' nerd, on charges of attempted murder and assault against four black toughs, the nation's preachers took to their various pulpits in full cry: politicians, journalists, civil-rights leaders, self-appointed guardians of the nation's conscience and morals -- all rose up in righteous fury to excoriate the jury and to draw grand pronunciamentos from its verdict.
It was an unseemly display. Though from time to time the voice of common sense was heard -- Russell Baker, Richard Cohen, William Raspberry -- by and large the nation was subjected to a great wave of hysteria. Commentators of every conceivable stripe fell over each other in the competition to see who could draw the most apocalyptic conclusions from the jury's findings, which cleared Goetz on all charges except illegal possession of a firearm. No one was more apocalyptic than the redoubtable Murray Kempton, who exceeded even himself in extrapolating the universal from the particular.
"The trial of Bernhard Goetz is over and the City of New York has been found guilty," Kempton wrote in his syndicated column. "The shame of this judgment is all our own and none of it belongs to these jurors. They heard the case for seven weeks and sought its meaning through upwards of 27 hours of deliberation, and their collective conscience has now impelled them to define the issue in Goetz' own terms and all but announce that law and justice have ceased to breathe as realities in this city." Kempton bled on in that vein for several paragraphs, then sucked in a deep breath and drew this lachrymose conclusion:
"Turn your back on the worst and you will in time turn your back on everyone. We just about have. For what else has the Goetz jury said to us except that the time is ripe and rotten ripe to square our shoulders, look straight at the huge rock that lies at the bottom of the hill and all together try to push it up the slippery slope back to the top. There is not much hope we will."
I say that's spinach, and I say to hell with it. Apart from the overwrought prose -- "the time is ripe and rotten ripe"! -- the essential argument simply does not withstand even moderately close analysis. It is the same argument being put forward by countless other commentators, whether they be lefties slipping their hearts on their sleeves or righties looking for facile proof of their civil-rights bona fides: They're all saying that the verdict by a dozen men and women in New York is an indictment of society itself, that the verdict constitutes a license to shoot -- especially if the gun is in white hands and the target is black.
It's an easy argument to advance because it seems so tidy and because it makes the person advancing it feel so good. One of the odder quirks of human nature is that a lot of people get a rush from greeting the apocalypse -- re- member the '60s? -- and from proclaiming themselves gloomier than thou. But there is in fact little reason to believe that, apart from the incredible media hype surrounding it, the Goetz case is anything more than just that: a case at law.
One certainly is entitled to believe, as indeed I do, that the case reached a grossly inappropriate conclusion and that the jury, however conscientiously it may have gone about its business, did a bad job. But to leap from that conviction to a universal condemnation -- "The shame of this judgment is all our own and none of it belongs to these jurors" -- is as irresponsible as anything the jury did or did not do. There is every reason to believe that the jury, given the particulars of the case as presented by a skillful defense, had reasonable doubt that Goetz was guilty as charged; but there is no reason to believe, unless one is predisposed so to believe, that in thus ruling the jury -- or the larger society it ostensibly represented -- was endorsing vigilante justice.
The argument is that the jury reached its verdict in a climate of fear and renewed racial animosity, and on both counts the argument is correct; in certain respects, these are bad times for the American social compact. But to inflate the Goetz verdict into a reflection of the times is, at best, facile and faulty logic. Notwithstanding all the media attention the case received, it was heard (by a biracial jury) within the confines of the courtroom and was concluded within the boundaries of the law. Had the opposite verdict been reached, what would the Kemptons now be telling us? That "the honor of this judgment is all our own and none of it belongs to these jurors"?
One of the many things wrong with writing a newspaper column is that it tempts one to inflate the ordinary into the extraordinary so as to give the news -- and the person commenting upon it -- the aura of significance; I speak with the voice of experience. Such pontificating is the equivalent of what jaded newspaper types, listening to political oratory, used to dismiss as "globaloney": rhetoric that has the sound of significance but deep down is shallow. It is useful to keep globaloney in mind: There is less to all this gasbagging about the Goetz case than meets the eye.
But what certainly is there is the snobbery of the educated middle class toward what Spiro Agnew glorified as "middle America" -- the America that is assumed, by too many of us in the media and academia and politics, to be ignorant and unenlightened and prejudiced. To those disposed toward such a view of ordinary Americans, the Goetz verdict comes as convenient confirmation of the dire visions that we -- in our own ignorance and bias -- have of the body politic. The gloomy conclusions being drawn from the Goetz verdict doubtless say more about the persons drawing them than about the verdict itself.
Yes, it is true that relations between the races are not as comfortable as they ought to be, and that open animosity is not uncommon. Anyone who thought that the '60s and '70s solved the country's racial problems surely has by now been disabused of that conceit. But we do well to bear in mind that because of what was accomplished in the '60s and '70s, our expectations are higher; an event such as the Goetz incident comes as a shock not merely because it was violent but because we -- and by "we" I mean the country as a whole, not merely the self-selected elite -- now demand more of ourselves, and each other, than we did a quarter-century ago. It is all well and good to lament that justice, in the case of Bernhard Goetz, does not seem to have been done; but to tar the entire society with this one man's brush is preposterous on its face, and a repudiation of all the progress that in truth we have made.