On Dec. 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz made a choice. When he entered that now-notorious subway car, he did not go to the right, where about 20 passengers were sitting, but to the left where four black youths were sitting alone. When one of the youths stood up and asked him how he was doing, he said he was doing fine. When, a bit later, two others stood up and one asked him for $5, he neither froze nor panicked nor attempted to move away. Instead, he shot them all one by one, two in the back, and then methodically checked them for wounds. Finding one without blood, he said, "You don't look so bad, here's another." With that, Bernhard Hugo Goetz, hero to so many, fired another shot at Darrel Cabey and got off the train.

That account of the shooting, including the quote, is contained in a police report and was presented to a New York grand jury which, in a feat of legal alchemy, converted the lead of attempted murder into the gold of self-defense. It indicted Goetz only for illegally carrying a gun but not for using it without justification. In New York, reason -- like alternate-side-of- the-street parking -- sometimes gets suspended.

The police report of the incident is now public and so, in a way, is the working of Goetz's mind. His ego has been so fertilized by his newspaper clippings that he thinks his one-way shootout was a beerhouse brawl. He harangues New York and the nation on the collapse of civil authority, the need of citizens to pack a rod and, throwing caution to the wind, gives us a peek into a mind that, were it a dump, would be eligible for federal cleanup funds: "I wish this never happened and I were just an innocuous gun-toting honky on the street."

There you have it. The police report, coupled with Goetz's characterization of himself in racial terms, suggests what some people long suspected: the shooting was racially motivated. It's possible Goetz went looking for young blacks because that's who had once mugged him and because that's who he feared. If that's the case, then at least when it comes to fear he has something in common with many urban Americans, both black and white. Certainly politicians knew almost from the start that the Goetz case was about something very basic -- fear of crime, which is a code for fear of young blacks. The pols ran scared, straight into the arms of the new hero -- that lovable gun-toting honky, Bernie Goetz.

But the newly released facts have soured this tale of heroic vigilantism, and Goetz has emerged as the problem he was supposed to solve. He is not the response to the breakdown of law and order; he is the breakdown of law and order. He's free, like the muggers he's always mouthing off about, a symbol of the lawlessness he condemns. Like the stereotype of a southern Klansman, he's convinced that since the law in its incomprehensible colorblindness is ineffective, he had to take it into his own hands. And once again it appears to some, particularly blacks, that justice has worked in the staged manner of a wrestling match in which popularity determines the outcome in advance.

There's now good reason to believe that self-defense had nothing to do with Goetz's shooting of four strangers on the train. Instead, there's reason to believe it was racism or, if you will, fear based on race. For Darrel Cabey -- now paralyzed and in a coma -- that's a distinction without a difference. As for the rest of us, it hardly matters that the grand jury was racially mixed or that the DA is a liberal of the old school. What matters now is that what may be a cold-blooded shooting is going unpunished -- even applauded. And what matters as much is that some people think the explanation for both the shooting and the failure to indict is race.

Bernhard Goetz haunts New York like Jack the Ripper haunted London. He feeds on its fears and sickness. He's a stain and a disgrace -- a symbol of the kind of justice New Yorkers once thought came only with grits and Spanish moss. It's supposedly difficult to seek yet another grand jury indictment and even harder for the governor to intervene with a special prosecutor. But the real issue is not Goetz's ultimate guilt or innocence, but public confidence in the criminal-justice system. Goetz has to be tried. He made his choice. Now New York has to make its.