It took 2 1/2 years and one of the more celebrated criminal cases in this country's history, but a New York jury may have returned that city to the law of the monster Tuesday.

"Monster" is what Bernhard Goetz called himself when he confessed to shooting four black youths on a subway on Dec. 22, l984, and that's what I think he is today.

Goetz has been hailed all along by some as a hero, receiving financial support to help him afford expensive legal counsel. But I say enough of this "hero" bit for a man who confessed that he shot four youths when two of them approached him and one of them, Troy Canty, asked him for $5. Goetz's explanation for whipping out his unlicensed .38 revolver and firing five shots: Canty's smile and the "shine" in his eyes made him fearful he was about to become the victim of a beating or robbery.

As debate has raged around the world on the issues of this case -- the use and limits of deadly force in self-defense and the right of crime victims to fight back -- Goetz came to symbolize many strong and conflicting emotions. To many people, it was an important issue of race.

For there is great fear and apprehension of New York's subways, and the stereotypical perception that young black men are dangerous is widespread. Indeed, so consistently are black men portrayed on TV and in our newspapers as dangerous that art begins to imitate life and life imitates art. While there is too much black crime for any sane person to want to dismiss this serious problem, it is unfortunate that even some blacks have begun to believe that other blacks are inherently dangerous creatures -- an issue with which blacks must surely deal.

Yet the race issue was ignored during this trial to the point of hypocrisy. Not only was it not raised in deliberations, but jurors said such things as, "It didn't matter if he was a white man or a black man," and, "Crime doesn't know a color."

If you doubt that racism was a factor, just try to imagine whether a pistol-toting black man would have had such a sweeping vindication had he shot four white teen-agers because two of them approached him and one of them had a "shine" in his eyes and a funny smile. If you believe that, I have a cheap bridge I want to sell you.

No, this decision encompassed the idea that a white man can shoot four black youths and the act constitutes legitimate self-defense. In this particular case there was the suspicion that the young men, all of whom had police records, intended to rob Goetz, a nervous victim of a previous assault. Indeed, nearly half of the other subway passengers testified of their own apprehension. Yet none of them, other than Goetz, felt threatened enough to take any action.

But even if the youths were trying to strong-arm Goetz, his response was inappropriate; his punishment did not fit the crime.

When Goetz's trial got under way several weeks ago, the jury heard his chilling admission in a videotaped statement made when he surrendered that he wanted to kill the youths.

He called himself "a cold-blooded murderer," acknowledging that he fired a second bullet at Darrell Cabey, who was left partly paralyzed and permanently brain-damaged.

A key question became who must give way when a person enters a subway car and finds part of it dominated by a group of people some might consider intimidating.

The job of the jurors, therefore, became how to separate vague perceptions of intimidation from the more specific threat of robbery or from the "threat of deadly physical force" -- the grounds on which Judge Stephen Crane told the jurors that Goetz's use of his weapon would be justified.

In his charge, Crane made one thing very clear to the jury: "A person who merely asks another for money is not committing the crime of robbery." But the jury, which included six crime victims and two blacks, concluded that Canty's request for $5 was more than a request for money.

One juror, Carolyn Perlmuth, 3l, a financial journalist, told United Press International: "The prosecution failed to prove its case within a reasonable doubt. Our verdict was not condoning anything one way or the other." New York University law Professor George Fletcher said the jury identified and sympathized with Goetz's fear: "It is not a judgment about whether these kids deserved to be shot." Maybe, but I think this verdict is a dangerous signal for us all.

There is a wise saying, "If men were angels, we would need no laws and government." Those kids might have not been angels, but neither was Goetz. To compensate for the fact that we all are human, we have the rule of law.

In setting Bernhard Goetz free, the jury sanctioned vigilantism, trampling upon the only thing that holds society together -- the law.