Bernhard Goetz may have been your fantasy hero. Norman Pannell is mine.
The so-called Subway Vigilante gunned down four New York teenagers he thought intended to rob him, thereby earning the instant admiration of everybody who's ever been reduced to quivering jello at the hands of a mugger.
Pannell, as of last night, was fighting for his life in the Howard University Hospital intensive-care unit, having been gunned down while trying to stop a man from selling drugs to a juvenile.
Goetz became less heroic as time passed, finally coming off as a bit of a kook who may have been looking for trouble. The evidence is that his would-be muggers were running for their lives when Goetz shot them. After a while, even his erstwhile admirers found him a little less than admirable.
Maybe it will happen that way with Pannell. But for now, the 28-year-old "Godfather," leader of a group of street vigilantes who call themselves the Young Dillingers, is hero enough for anybody who is outraged at what dope dealers are doing to a generation of gullible youngsters.
According to the early reports, Pannell was trying to stop a drug dealer from completing a sale of PCP to a child when the dealer drew a gun and shot him, wounding him twice more as Pannell tried to get away.
The Young Dillingers, now mostly in their mid-20s, used to be just another violence-prone street gang before they embarked on their free-lance anti-crime campaign a few years ago. "We got tired of the violence and all the wrong we were doing, so we decided to change our ways, Philip (Hillbilly) Veney, told The Post a year ago, after one of their members was found shot to death in a drug-ridden alley.
Since then they have played to mixed reviews. They have been accused by some of being involved in the drug traffic themselves, or at best acting as a band of police informants, and praised by others for escorting elderly women through some of the city's toughest streets, breaking up street fights and leaning on local pushers. At least three of their members have been killed.
One police "adviser" said the Young Dillingers were providing a needed service. "These guys can deter crime by just walking the streets," Officer Ronald Hampton said in 1981. "We've noticed an overall decrease in street crime since they started patrolling the area. The Young Dillingers are doing something that's been needed in the community for a long time, and I'm glad to see them doing it on their own."
I'd like to believe that these young men really had turned around; that, like members of the Guardian Angels and other self-styled vigilante groups, they really were concerned about cleaning up neighborhoods that were beyond the control of the authorities.
Especially now that the "Godfather" has been gravely wounded, I want to believe that he risked his life in an attempt to save youngsters from the ravages of dope addiction; that he will turn out to be a genuine hero.
But experience -- including the case of Bernhard Goetz -- teaches caution. Violence-based heroism has a way of turning out to be a little less heroic as the story develops.
So while the cynic in me is prepared for the worst, the hopeful part of me is saying: Let "Godfather" Pannell be all right -- in every sense of the phrase.