Bernhard Goetz is convinced that he "educated a lot of liberals" when, a year ago yesterday, he opened fire on four teen-agers who he thought intended to mug him on a New York City subway train.
I don't know if I am what he had in mind, but I have to admit that I've been educated, at least tentatively, by the Goetz affair. I've been thinking about the so-called "subway vigilante" while trying to sort out my feelings on the killers of Catherine Fuller, whose brutal murder 14 months ago created such revulsion here.
I've vacillated for years on the question of capital punishment -- thinking sometimes that it is nothing short of societal barbarism, sometimes that society needs to have in reserve this outrageous means of registering its outrage over particularly heinous offenses. I had just about concluded that my friends are right when they call for the execution of the young men convicted of the Catherine Fuller savagery.
It might be an act of societal savagery, I knew; and I also knew that I wouldn't want to be the one to throw the switch on the electric chair. But it did strike me as appropriate, in this extreme case, for society at large to register its revulsion in a way that no prison term ever could. I also told myself it might make the next young savages think twice, that it might teach them a lesson.
But then I started thinking of the lessons we were supposed to have learned from the barrel of Bernhard Goetz's revolver. New York Mayor Ed Koch thought Goetz's celebrated refusal to rely on a dismayingly porous criminal justice system might spark thoroughgoing reform, including special courts and 20 new judgeships. The district attorney thought it would get him the half million dollars he wanted fora special unit to combat subway crime. And Americans across the country thought it might serve notice on young hoodlums that we were mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more.
Here's the Associated Press report card on those lessons: "The mayor never got his subway court, and the district attorney never got his money. The legislature approved no mandatory jail sentences, created no new judgeships, built no new prisons. The criminal court remains a legal turnstile where judges handle an average of one case every six minutes. Subway ridership is down 0.4 percent."
The lessons, in fact, seem to have gone the other way. Goetz, who was an unquestioned hero in much of America, has fallen precipitously from grace. No longer does the public see him as a mild- mannered Clark Kent transformed by youthful savagery into a righteously vengeful superman. He's not even the "Death Wish" Charles Bronson so many of us secretly yearn to be.
Instead, he turns out to be a bigot (United Press International says he's been heard to refer to blacks as "niggers" and Puerto Ricans as "spics") who reminds Americans of their own latent bigotry; a bully who shot at least two of his victims in the back; a one- man version of a lynch mob.
"The more New Yorkers learned about their new idol," said UPI, "the less they liked him."
Of course. The people who act out our darker impulses seldom turn out, on closer examination, to be people to admire. There aren't any good-guy lynch mobs and vigilantes in real life.
And what is true of armed vigilantes acting outside the law may also be true of societies who, in moments of fear, frustration and outrage, turn to official vigilantism. It is, I suspect, why we keep vacillating, as individuals and as a society, on the question of capital punishment. We let savage behavior turn us into savages, but only for a time. After a while, we reflect on what we have become, and we are repulsed by the reflection. And finally we ask the legislatures and the courts to stop us before we kill again.
That is the real lesson Bernhard Goetz has taught us. Not that we have, even now, learned it perfectly.
If the District of Columbia hadn't outlawed the death penalty, the brutish young thugs who practiced their outrageous savagery on Catherine Fuller would be prime candidates for official extermination. I might well have found myself joining in my colleague Courtland Milloy's exhortation to "fire up 'Old Sparky,'use electric chair used to be called.
But we no longer have the death penalty here. And even in my outrage over what the young punks did to Catherine Fuller, I have to say: I'm glad we don't.