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Subway catharsis.

In the Fourteenth Street subway statioin at Sixth Avenue in Manhataan--Bernhard Goetz's home stop--a new piece of graffiti adorns the grimy tiles: "GOETZ RULES NIGGERS." There's nothing special in the sight of filth and bile scrawled on the city's walls, but that terse emblem may be unique: of the millions of words written and broadcast about the "Death Wish" Vigilante since his attack on December 22, those three most frankly and directly state the racist sentiments that infuse the case.

Racism is hardly a secret, and the significane of a white man emptying his revolver into the bodies of four black youths is lost on no one. It is what everyone talks about in their homes, at work, on the street. Race is the referent when people recount tales of their own muggings or of assaults on friends and neighbors. But now the media displays an unaccustomed tact. Last week, The New York Times published almost a full page of research on Goetz in which the world "black" apeared only once, in a quote from Goetz's description of a 1981 mugging, and the racial aspect of the recent shooting was never mentioned. Goetz's campaign neighborhood crime was detailed, tenants in his apartment house were interviewed, and his life and career were chronicled. Reporter Robert McFadden apparently thought it was relevant to relay the story that Goetz's father was indicted for molesting two teen-age boys in 1960, but he omitted one highly charged item that was published in another paper just after Goetz's surrender: some neighbors who attended a tenants' meeting Goetz once organized were appalled at his "bigotry."

Even the tabloids, for whom no sensation is too lurid, present the racism only by inference: pictures of the assailant and his victims, the cou use of journalistic code words and the repetition of telltale descriptions ("the blond, well-dressed engineer"). Public officials, including Mayor Edward Koch and Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward (the first black man to hold that position), were quick to condemn the shootings, but they seemed more concerned about the challenge it posed to the city's monopoly on police power, the affront to the city administration's competence and the effect on November's local elections than about the racial crisis that it expressed.

Apparently, the media and the officials believe that if race is not mentioned, it need not be confronted and might somehow disappear as an issue. Other justifications, some of them valid in part, are applied to fit the crime and the public reaction. Self-defense is a natural right; the public is sick of crime, mistrustful of the police and despairing of justice from the courts; people need to take revenge, personally or vicariously, for all the unpunished "little murders" of urban life; the social contract ran out in the 1960s and has not been renewed. Local television news shows bolster arguments for those theories with sidewalk interviews lthat confirm the racial component by seeming to deny it: a black woman suports Goetz; the mother of one of the shooting victims says her son deserved it; a "civil rights lawyer" and a CORE leader express approval for the vigilante's attack. If race were not at the heart of the matter, such pointed responses, marshaled to influence public opinion, would not be necessary.

Avoiding public discussion of the issue that is on everyone's mind does not dampen hatred but gives it a measure of legitimacy. The subway shooting has loosed a lot of ugly thoughts and unworthy opinions not only in New York City, where it is hard to view one's fellows of all varieties without fear and hostillity, but in peaceable corners of the country, where street crime is rare and social relations are generally cordial. Storekeepers in New Hampshire, farmers in Iowa, suburbanites in Georgia, reveal to reporters and talk-show hosts an anger that hardly comes from personal experience. Rather, it is a metaphorical rage, the function of a pervasive sense of powerlessness that fixes primarily--though not exclusively--on race as a cause and revenge as a cure.

In fact, the subway shooting and its consequences have become a mythic expression of the illness of American civil society. It is a drama strong enough to arouse a country inured to ordinary acts of violence, able "to hit a real raw nerve" as people are saying, to subvert the facts of the case to the construction of an instant social myth. Goetz himself is called an unlikely hero, but he seems perfect for his part in this modern morality play: the story of a lonely yuppie terminator, neurotic, freelance and divorced in the anomic city; but blond, brave and Germanic in battle against the invading dark barbarians. It doesn't matter in the myth, as opposed to the event, whether he was hassled or attacked, whether he saw the youths' screwdrivers or not, whether he shot them in the front or the back, whether he meant to kill or defend. In the play, the blasts from his silver gun arourse a powerless people, and the wounds of his victims redeem a fallend land.

The myth as well as the reality evoke frightening historical analogies. Our nightmares are filled with images of tribal violence rationalized as political necessity. We know what results when racial tensio is exploited to empower a populace whose pride and patriotism have been offended. Nothing good comes from acts of social vengeance. The subways and streets of New York are no safer now, the courts are still clogged, the police are no more efficient, punks are not cowed and ordinary citizens are not confident.

To change the conditions that gave rise to the myth, the myth must first be destroyed. Racism must be addressed and attacked. The system that denies power to the people has to be reconsidered and its inequities redressed. Fear, hatred and hostility are private emotions, but they are also public issues. And they are written on the subway walls.
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Title Annotation:the racism behind the subway vigilante incident
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Jan 19, 1985
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