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Book Review : Goetz: Anger of a Loner, Rage in the Mean Streets

January 22, 1987|JOSEPH McNAMARA | San Jose Police Chief McNamara's police thriller, "Fatal Command ," will be published by Arbor House in March, 1987. and

Quiet Rage: Bernie Goetz in a Time of Madness by Lillian B. Rubin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95)

Lillian Rubin has written an important book on an American dilemma--the urban fear of crime and its devastating impact on race relations. She grippingly tells the story of blond-haired Bernhard Hugo Goetz Jr., who, on Dec. 22, 1985, shot four black youths on a New York subway train, climbed from the car and escaped into a dark tunnel. The news media romantically dubbed the unknown gunman "The Subway Vigilante." Instantly, he became a hero of our time.

Rubin, who grew up in the Bronx and is now a psychotherapist in the San Francisco area, recounts the shooting, manhunt, prosecution and public reaction with the pace of a Robert Ludlum novel. I also grew up in the Bronx. Before escaping westward, I served 17 years as a New York cop, mostly in Harlem and the South Bronx. Rubin's descriptions of crime and the fearful, angry reaction of black and white New Yorkers that led so many to instantly support Goetz is authentic.

The author is less effective when she intersperses chapters on Goetz's background with the narrative. Not that Goetz isn't a fascinating study. His father was a rigid Lutheran, a visionary entrepreneur who built the family fortune under great obstacles. His mother was a warm and loving Jewish woman who converted to Lutheranism and served as a buffer to the aloof, hard-driving father. The family was plunged into a scandal when Goetz Sr. was convicted of molesting two 15-year-old boys. Bernie, an excellent student, was sent to school in Switzerland to shield him from the publicity of the protracted trials. We are told that Bernie's character was affected even earlier than this trauma because he was smaller than other boys and often a target of bullies.

Rubin's sketches of this brilliant loner are based only upon research and interviews--Bernhard Goetz refused to speak to her. Despite this, she constructs a highly speculative history of Goetz, complete with more psychoanalytical theories than readers should have to bear. At one point, she actually implies that the "rage" driving Bernie came as much from the black kids asking for $5 as from his much publicized anger over being victimized. (Allegedly, his father had offered $5 to one of the 15-year-old boys he molested.) In addition, she claims that Goetz used dum-dum bullets when he apparently used legal hollow-point ammunition.

Despite these minor distractions, Rubin presents a disturbing account of the "rage" building between blacks and whites on New York's dangerous streets. She admits that her first reaction to the Goetz incident was: "Good!Someone finally gave it back to those damn kids." And to her credit, she doesn't shrink from the racist currents. She quotes a white man working in the civil rights movement as saying: "I hate how I feel about these damn black kids, but they have everyone in this city living in terror." And she describes the "rage" of young blacks drifting into drugs and crime, detailing their lack of hope of ever participating in the mainstream of American life.

The book also tells of the quick cheers for the vigilante despite his flight, which normally would have been perceived as an indication of guilt. Both black and white people were fed up with being terrorized by young thugs.

Public Opinion Changed

Nevertheless, as it became evident that Goetz possessed the gun illegally and had shot two of the four youths in the back when they could not have been a threat to him, public opinion began to change. Polls showed black support decreased far more quickly than white. Disclosure that one of the youths shot in the back suffered brain damage and would be paralyzed for life caused many blacks to be angry, especially toward those whites who continued to support Goetz.

Rubin criticizes the media for seeming more inclined to stereotype the youths as drug-using criminals while glamorizing Goetz, ignoring questions about his stability and motivation. He is now awaiting trial on attempted murder and assault charges, and it is likely that we will learn answers to some of the questions raised by the author.

The book doesn't condone the crimes of young ghetto blacks nor minimize their impact on society, nor does it dispute the right to self-defense, but Rubin does argue that unless something is done to bring these youths into our society, "We are consigned to an unending escalation of the present state of war between us." After 30 years as a policeman, I couldn't agree more.

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