Bernhard Hugo Goetz, once a man, is now a metaphor. The so-called Subway Vigilante has been stripped of his humanity and turned into a cause. He's become a hero, a rallying cry, a symbol to conservatives of what liberalism has allegedly done to society. It is just a matter of time until abortion gets dragged into this.

You snicker. But bear with me. What follows is a sentence taken from the newspaper column of Joseph Sobran, a senior editor of The National Review: "But maybe we should give vigilante action a chance to restore the balance of nature a little bit."

Okay, let's start. Let's start, say, with companies that strip-mine and leave the land so that nothing will grow afterward. Of course, there are laws prohibiting that sort of thing, but they are violated all the time. Let's take those companies and trash them -- maybe rip apart their factories or beat up their executives. How's that for restoring the balance of nature?

How about the auto companies. From time to time they make a car that's a real killer. There's one now whose transmission occasionally pops into reverse, and some people have been run over as a result. Maybe something of a vigilante nature should be done to the auto executives. It hardly matters, as long as we are in a lynch mob mood, if we pick the wrong ones. After all, most of them have fought all attempts to put air bags into cars, and that has cost more lives than subway hoodlums.

Once you warm to the idea of vigilantism, there is just no stopping. I, for one, would like to settle matters with the company for which my father worked for about 45 years and which now, in his retirement, pays him your basic Third World pension. Inflation has ravaged his dollar, and a lifetime of work comes down to annual pittance, but he and the company have made their deal. It has the law on its side, and there's nothing my father can do. Is that right? I say string 'em up.

The trouble with fans of vigilantism is that they are obsessed with crime in the conventional sense. They lament the passing of the pre-Miranda era when cops read you your rights only after they had paddled your head -- and then mentioned that you had no rights. Sorry. Those methods kept certain crimes down, although it did not stop the poor from preying on the poor. Alas, there is no perfect solution.

But there are crimes that have nothing to do with subways or, for that matter, with violence. If vigilantism is a good thing when it comes to the streets or the subways, why can't it be used, say, against a government that cuts off disability payments to the disabled or tobacco companies that take billboards and magazine covers to tell kids about the wonders of smoking. How about the used-car dealer who told a Spanish- speaking immigrant I know that her guarantee covers everything, when -- as she later found out -- it covers almost nothing. Once again, the law is protecting the wrong person.

In fact, this spirit of lawlessness is precisely what so enraged conservatives about the old anti-war movement. Former members of the Weather Underground who brained cops with tossed bricks ought to consult today's conservatives to learn why that violence is now morally justifiable. They'd be told that when the government is incapable or unwilling to enforce the law, each person has the right to decide what the law is -- and enforce it himself. So if society condones the bombing of North Vietnam and, inescapably, the killing of innocents, then those who think this illegal or immoral can take whatever action they deem necessary.

None of this, though, has anything to do with Goetz -- not him personally, nor the facts of his case. He's just the ship to which all kinds of ideological and emotional barnacles cling in epic disregard of the facts. Our hero, it turns out, doesn't even consider himself a hero. He told a neighbor he was just scared.

The facts as we know them make the incident messy, not grand or noble. Goetz, already a media spectacle, may wind up in jail, and one of the youths he shot is paralyzed; he may die. If you want to turn Goetz into a metaphor at least get it right. He -- and those he shot -- are the inevitable result of vigilantism. They are all victims now.