Let me summarize in a few paragraphs the raging debate over Bernhard Hugo Goetz, New York's subway "vigilante."
Paragraph 1: The four kids he shot had it coming. People are sick and tired of being terrorized by no-good thugs. If the cops can't protect them, average citizens going about their business have a right to take the law into their own hands.
Paragraph 2: Okay, okay, so the kids weren't choirboys. But Goetz's life wasn't directly threatened. Do you want to live in a society where everyone is armed to the teeth and people shoot to kill whenever they feel the least bit threatened?
Paragraph 3: . . .
That's the curious thing about the Goetz debate. After the initial arguments have been stated on both sides, there is no next paragraph. Both sides recognize the element of truth in the opposing view. This ambivalence is reflected in the refusal of a Manhattan grand jury to indict Goetz for attempted murder while charging him on weapons counts that could, conceivably, keep him in prison for several years. And, despite the widely reported initial wave of sympathy for Goetz, a recent Post-ABC news poll showed people evenly divided between the two views. But no one seems to have any clear idea of what this fascinating event implies for the country's future and what, if anything, should be done to alter that course.
A decade ago newspapers and TV shows would have been filled with learned commentary about the legacy of poverty and discrimination that produces young punks armed with screwdrivers. Experts in education, welfare and public administration would have prescribed new or expanded government programs, and politicians would have rushed to introduce legislation dealing comprehensively with the causes and symptoms of this social disorder.
But now about the only person who has expressed any of the traditional concerns is Goetz himself. Speaking through his lawyer, Joseph Kelner, at a Senate hearing, Goetz summarized his tangled thoughts on social justice and the meaning of his recent and earlier experiences with hoodlums: "Why couldn't those kids have gotten jobs?"
The flippant response is that they could have. Anecdotes aside, many people know firsthand at least one -- and perhaps many -- young people who, despite being born into the most adverse of circumstances managed through a combination of grit, luck and an occasional helping hand to make at least a decent place for themselves in the world. But it is simply fatuous to ignore the fact that the odds are heavily stacked against the average kids -- maybe kids with temperaments and endowments not unlike your kid's or mine -- who are unable to overcome the manifold disadvantages of being born in today's urban ghettos. Claude Brown, whose famous autobiography, "Manchild in the Promised Land," told of his own redemption from a life of youthful hooliganism, revisited today's Harlem, which he described in an article in The New York Times Magazine last September. Harlem, he reported, holds no promise for today's young blacks. They are born to absent fathers and to mothers who, being little more than children themselves, offer their offspring no civilizing influence or sense of self-respect.
These youngsters grow up with no aspiration beyond acquiring the designer jeans and name- brand jogging shoes and other symbols of status on the streets. To get these things they are quite prepared to steal and, if necessary, murder. "Murder is in style now," Brown reported. Jail or death holds no fear for many of Harlem's youth -- just as life holds no promise.
New York, of course, is not the only city where violent youth terrorize neighborhoods. Chicago, Detroit and some of the newer cities of the Southwest have as much or more violent crime. What should be done about it?
Part of the answer is more cops, more judges and -- yes -- more and better prisons. That's expensive but necessary. Claude Brown observes that examples of unrestrained violence on the streets breed more such behavior among youthful observers. He notes with irony how well two current New York styles -- murder and lax law enforcement -- "complement each other." Slow and uncertain punishment is understandably infuriating to the victimized public as well. Bernhard Goetz's apparently obsessive desire for vengeance was fed by his belief that his earlier attackers had gone unpunished.
Of course it would be much more satisfactory for everyone involved if the social disintegration that breeds street crime could be prevented. Here the prevailing view is that such efforts were tried and failed. "In the war on poverty, poverty won," President Reagan said in a recent lighthearted characterization. But did we really fight -- or lose?
Of the many billions spent in the last two decades on social programs, the vast bulk was for Social Security and medical benefits for the aged and disabled. Welfare aid for families atrophied, and programs that aim to put disadvantaged kids on the right track early in life, such as the successful Head Start program, haven't been funded adequately. Even at the brief spending peak of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the money was so widely scattered -- and usually so poorly administered -- that relatively few inner-city kids benefited. And the programs that did work were barely in place before they were dismantled.
The country has spent trillions on defense, and yet we are told we are still weak. No one concludes from that admission that we now simply ought to throw in the towel and disarm ourselves. And yet it is much more likely that the average citizen will find his life and possessions -- as well as the general quality of this country's life -- threatened by home-bred assassins than by foreign invaders. Social justice and domestic security don't come cheap either.