The acquittal of Bernhard H. Goetz of charges of attempted murder and assault says a lot more about what has been happening to America than about either Goetz or the jury that cleared him.
It tells us that because of a frightening increase in crimes, and demagogic exploitation of that fact, the crazy passions of vigilantism are as alive in America today as the AIDS virus.
It tells us that a public outcry over violent crimes can make the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court do a flip-flop on the meaning of the Constitution, unleashing in state after state the operators of the electric chair, the gas chamber, the deadly injection, the firing squad.
It tells us that in this atmosphere, juries succumb easily to the mindsets of ''Rambo,'' ''Dirty Harry'' and that celebrated ''Death Wish'' vigilante created by Charles Bronson.
Some Americans are astonished that a jury would acquit a man who spoke of himself as ''a coldblooded murderer,'' ''a vicious rat'' and ''a monster,'' and who said the following on videotape of his intentions with regard to the four black youths he shot on a New York subway 2 1/2 years ago: ''My intention was to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible. . . . If I had more bullets, I would have shot them all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets, and I was gonna gouge one of the guys' eyes out with my keys afterwards.''
I am not astonished. I have been watching the mood of America change since the decade of the 1960s, when violent crime rose 126 percent. I note that whereas Americans opposed capital punishment by 47 to 42 percent in a 1966 Gallup Poll, they favored the death penalty by 65 to 28 percent in 1975.
The Supreme Court that had found the death penalty unconstitutional bent to the turbulent shift in public opinion and decided the states could resume executing people if they did not do it in an ''arbitrary'' or ''capricious'' way. So the state-sanctioned killers are having a field day. Louisiana just executed its fourth prisoner in 10 days.
Millions of Americans say ''ho hum,'' believing -- or hoping -- the executions will deter others from committing murder. The facts don't bear this out. Until recently, Florida was way ahead of Louisiana and the other states in executions. Yet, Florida has more people on death row now than when it resumed executions. Georgia resumed executing people in 1983. In the three years prior to 1983, Georgia had the lowest murder rate in its history. In the three years after resuming executions, Georgia had the highest murder rate in its history.
There were about 600 Americans on death rows when the Supreme Court did its flip-flop and said the states could tune up their death machines. There are more than 1,800 on death rows now. Some deterrent!
New York's ''subway vigilante'' is getting away with a vicious shooting spree because those he shot could be characterized by his defense attorney as ''a wolfpack'' and ''savages.''
God spare us all a widening spell of lawlessness in which self-styled vigilantes may decide what you and I deserve.