THE QUESTION to the jury was whether Bernhard H. Goetz really thought that he had to use deadly force -- his pistol -- to defend himself. Another question was whether that was reasonable. Riding a New York City subway on a December night in 1984, Mr. Goetz, who is white, was approached by a group of four black youths, one of whom asked him for $5. Perhaps they were going to rob him. He responded by shooting and wounding all four, for which he has been on trial since late April. The jury has now found that he acted in self-defense. it convicted him of possession of a gun, but acquitted him of attempted murder.

The prosecution argued that Mr. Goetz was anything but reasonable, and had grossly overreacted to harmless panhandling. He had been beaten three years earlier in a mugging that had left him "seething . . . obsessed with crime and his own solutions," the prosecutor charged -- he was unstable, an "emotional powder keg."

But the jury included six people who had themselves been victims of crimes, three of them on subways. It cannot have helped the prosecution that two of the four young men are now in prison on unrelated charges, and a third was in a drug rehabilitation center; the fourth was paralyzed by Mr. Goetz's shot. Nor can it have helped that when the prosecution called three of them as witnesses, one pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and another was found in contempt by the judge for refusing to answer a defense lawyer's questions.

In the days immediately after the shooting 2 1/2 years ago, the affair seemed relatively simple to a lot of people -- not only in New York -- who thought Mr. Goetz a hero. This was perverse. Then, fortunately, second thoughts began to set in about the undertones of vigilante justice, and the ugly precedent for other armed free-lances who might want to go after people they dislike, or disapprove of. There had also been a strong, unmistakable element of racism in that first response, and there were justified fears that it would lead not to less violence but more of it, directed at blacks.

By the time the trial started, the case was manifestly the very opposite of simple. The shadowy depths of motive and circumstance were reflected in the videotape of Mr. Goetz's shaky confession, made eight days after the shootings: ". . . I, in my heart, was a murderer."

The Goetz case is part of a troubling debate that has gone on in this country since its beginning. It is infinitely better to leave law enforcement and the protection of your safety to the police. But what if you don't think the police are going to be there to protect you? Then you have a right to defend yourself, if you are menaced beyond a certain point. Where's that point? The argument over the Goetz verdict will go on out of court precisely because of the powerful racial feelings that were expressed and the suspect nature of much of that commentary. But in the end, it's up to a jury. The Goetz jury listened to seven weeks of testimony and argument, deliberated four days, and finally decided that Mr. Goetz had been pushed beyond that point.