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Public's Rage Continues Over Goetz Case : Psychologist Shocked at Reaction to Her Exploration of Vigilantism

September 25, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Her first radio talk show originated in Cleveland. "A hostile audience," Lillian B. Rubin recalled in her notes. She remembers one caller saying of Bernhard Goetz, "It makes no difference what anybody says, he did us all a favor and he should go free."

On Paul Carson's call-in show in Miami, a man "shrieked" at Rubin, telling her she "told nothing but lies" and that "Bernie did the world a favor" when he shot four black teen-agers in a New York subway. The caller added that he would "like to do the world a favor and shoot me," Rubin recalled.

A man in Denver telephoned Pat Boyles' talk show on radio station KNUS and, using a derogatory racial term, said Goetz should have killed the four men. "They don't deserve to live, and you don't either, lady," he railed. "You better watch yourself before somebody takes care of you, too. It's people like you who have ruined this country. We ought to send you back where you came from."

And on Don Wright's radio show on KEX in Portland, Ore., a woman blurted out angrily, "It's not illegal to be a racist."

That live show was aired at 10 o'clock at night. Psychologist Rubin was in her home in the Bay Area, "sitting on the phone, you know, the usual radio show format." Portland particularly upset her. "You're a liar," a woman told Rubin. "You wrote those lies just to hurt this poor man who was defending himself. I hope God takes care of people like you, because you don't deserve his pity."

'I Was So Shaken'

And, one man said, also calling from Portland, "Maybe you don't know, but I do. I think he ought to have used a machine gun."

After that show, Rubin said, "I had a drink. I took half a tranquilizer, which I never, ever, ever take, and I still could not sleep. I was so shaken."

Not that Rubin expected the public to send her valentines when she took on the project that became "Quiet Rage: Bernie Goetz in a Time of Madness" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95). "I knew I was writing a controversial book on a controversial subject," she said.

But in fact Rubin and her publisher wondered when she started writing about the now-legendary Subway Gunman incident if the public would remember the thin, blond man who on Dec. 22, 1984, shot four youths on a New York subway car.

"We were worried that people outside New York would say, 'Now remind me about the Goetz case,' " Helene Atwan of Farrar, Straus & Giroux said. "Forget it."

The author of five earlier books, Rubin did steel herself for some debate over her joint premise that Goetz captured the nation's imagination by personifying the vigilante hero; that racism is rampant in the 1980s; and that a collective sense of powerlessness has produced an undercurrent of rage throughout society.

"I expected to have a hard time, and I expected this book to generate controversy," Rubin said. "Did I expect this kind of uninhibited, unrestrained rage? No."

"I was real surprised," said Ed Busch, host of a Dallas-based radio talk show that bears his name and is aired live by satellite nationwide on the Associated Press Radio Network. "It was among the most vitriolic attacks that I've seen in recent years."

Busch's wife, Sydney, handles most of the show's bookings. "When Sydney first brought this one to me, we didn't think there was any recent national news about Goetz. It had faded," Busch said. So Busch decided to focus on the issue of vigilantism.

"I was looking to jump off from Goetz and talk about people who take the law into their own hands," he said. "But it immediately focused on Goetz." Very quickly, Busch said, the show became "who was she to try to get inside this man's mind and come up with what he was thinking?"

Generally when he features psychologists on his show, "people seem to find them comforting," Busch said. "But this was the departure. They went after her. The people picked up the lance. They all said it looked like she was taking the boys' stand as opposed to Goetz's."

As a host, Busch said he makes a policy of never intervening between a guest and an audience. However, he did bristle when one caller referred to the four youths in the incident with a racial epithet.

"I did express chagrin," Busch said. "I said, 'I think you've gone a bit far.' "

Phones Kept Ringing

In Miami, Paul Carson did an interview and call-in session with Rubin on radio station WNWS. Long after Rubin was off the air, Carson said, the phones continued to ring.

"What surprised me was that it was not balanced," he said. "Generally you get someone who says, 'Hey, listen to what the woman said. All she really said is that the problem goes deeper than what he did, the problem is in black-white relationships.'

"They kept saying that that has nothing to do with it, Goetz is a hero."

Instead, Carson said, the callers turned their venom on Rubin. "She's the messenger," he said, "being killed for the message."

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