25 years after Bernhard Goetz shooting
Twenty-five years ago today, on December 22, 1984, when I was in my second month as a reporter for New York Newsday, I was sent out to check on a report from police that four people had been shot on the subway. There were several detectives in the subway station where the train stopped, and I was among a few reporters who peppered them with questions. The detectives seemed to be bursting to tell what had happened: that a well-dressed "golden haired" white man had shot four black youths who may have tried to rob him.There were maybe three detectives there - at least one was black - and they told us that the shooter was "a Charles Bronson-like character." My more inventive colleagues at the Daily News and the New York Post quickly dubbed him "the `Death Wish' gunman," after a movie in which Bronson plays a vigilante who shoots thugs. TV news, talk radio and UPI picked up that line and made it a refrain. It took more than a week for police to arrest Bernhard Goetz, and in that space of time, the mysterious subway gunman had become a folk hero. When police asked the public for help in solving the shooting, it yielded hundreds of phone calls from people praising the gunman.The police commissioner and Mayor Koch called for the public not to glorify vigilantism, to little avail. Gradually, actual facts began to come out: that the youths had in fact asked for money ($5), upon which Goetz drew his unlicensed handgun and shot them. Goetz fired a second shot into the back of one of the fleeing youths, supposedly telling him, "You don't look so bad. Here's another." He was paralyzed from the waist down at age 19. Goetz was ultimately acquitted of attempted murder and convicted of illegal possession of a weapon, for which he was sentenced to six months in jail.Up until my last week as a reporter at Newsday - the week of Sept. 9, 2001 - I had never covered a New York story that drew as much attention and controversy as the Goetz case did. I recall one TV "news" interview that aired in which a reporter, having followed Goetz from a court hearing, interviewed someone in a diner where he had eaten and breathlessly asked what kind of sandwich he had eaten.I've been wondering what the reaction would be today to such a case. Have racial fears in the age of Obama and violent crime calmed enough that such a gunman would not be turned into a hero even before his name was known?
About the Author
Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).