Sixteen days ago, a white New York subway passenger pulled a pistol from his waistband and shot four black teen-agers who allegedly harassed him and demanded five dollars. After giving an explanation to a nearby subway conductor, the gunman leapt onto the subway tracks and fled, initiating a nationwide manhunt that ended last week with his surrender.

Between the time the four youths were shot and Bernard Hugo Goetz confessed to the shootings and was taken into custody, a plethora of sympathy nationwide has swelled for Goetz.

He became a national hero. Radio hosts sang his praises. Newspapers, borrowing from the film "Deathwish," dubbed him the "Deathwish gunman." Residents interviewed on the streets of several cities said Goetz gave those kids exactly what they deserved: frontier justice. Goetz's explanation to the conductor -- "I'm sorry, but it had to be done" -- was boldly bannered on the front pages of two New York tabloids.

But when Goetz turned himself in, it became increasingly clear how little we really know about the man or the events on that subway train. If Goetz practiced frontier justice, then the public is guilty of prematurely judging the matter. Even some members of the press have bought into the snap judgment mentality, practicing faulty frontier journalism.

One San Diego radio station conducted an on-the-air poll in which listeners backed the gunman 4 to 1. But the poll was conducted with limited information, because the suspect was still at large. One newspaper waxed on at length about the "approval for violent self-defense" and only casually threw in the caveat that it was not yet clear whether the gunman was acting in self-defense.

Interestingly, while the case is following a scenario of black-and-white simplicities, the responses of many residents did not follow the usual racial lines. The Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization, offered money for Goetz's defense. A New York radio host proclaimed: "The new repolarization of people is not going to be black against white, but rather decent against indecent."

Although I personally welcome this new complexity of response, I can think of several questions that should have been asked.

Would the response of the American public have been the same if a white gunman had shot four white teen-agers? Suppose the gunman had not been such a good shot and had hit an innocent bystander? Would he have been a hero or merely a demonstration of the dangers of vigilantism? What if the youths were begging, not threatening? Or suppose he had killed the youths, as he now says he intended to, instead of only paralyzing one from the waist down? And what if Goetz turned out to be a paranoid psychotic who never fully recovered from a traumatic mugging three years ago, as one psychiatrist has suggested?

Many such factors have been played down or ignored by the public and some people within the press and electronic media. But in the absence of any suitable answers, and in the abundance of doubts, there is a need for all of us to be a little more rational in our response to unusual occurrences.

Perhaps because of the anxiety and tension in our daily lives, we all live with repressed violence in ways our forefathers never dreamed of. Maybe Goetz's action in a New York subway struck at that repressed violence and anger.

But no matter how frightened we become, we must remember that justice is not meted out in the street but in courtrooms. America is in a volatile period, and that is why journalists and media personalities must be voices of rationality and moderation lest we all take another step away from civility and find ourselves in caves.