Golden Boy

Alison Weir

  • Quiet Rage: Bernie Goetz and the Shootings on the New York Subway by Lillian Rubin
    Faber, 265 pp, £4.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 571 14944 8

On 22 December 1984, Bernard Goetz got into a subway car in New York City and sat down at the back with four young blacks. Wondering what this ‘white dude’ was up to, they teasingly asked him for five dollars to play a video game. When one of the four put his hand in his pocket, Goetz got up, pulled out his pistol, leant against the post to steady himself and said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got five dollars for each of you,’ as he shot them one by one. Two of the youths ran away towards the other end of the car. One ‘tried to run through the wall of the train’. After the shooting, Goetz took a good look at each of his victims ‘to make sure they were cold, that they’d been taken care of’. When one of them stirred, Goetz fired into him again, saying: ‘You seem to be doing all right, here’s another.’ Then he let himself out of the train, which had stopped short of the station in response to the emergency signal, and walked away down the tunnel.

Lillian Rubin’s Quiet Rage records the response to this event on the part of a public grown wearily accustomed to random violence. People who travel the subway are under continual stress and feel deeply frustrated. When a halo appeared over an outline of Goetz drawn on a West Side subway station it was the direct outcome of all those fears and feelings of impotence. Goetz became the supreme ‘subway vigilante’, the ‘death wish shooter’. Most people really wanted to believe he had taken on four black muggers single-handed. Building on the public’s hysteria, the media made him into a hero for most New York City dwellers – white ones, at all events. He even became a hero to a greater public beyond, to people in the Middle West, for instance, who, as Rubin points out, still do not lock their houses or their cars. Rubin charges that the press orchestrated a gut response for readers who reacted like children to fairy stories (Grimm, not Anderson). Goetz’s many admirers announced that ‘he was shooting for all of us’; and made him out to be somewhat like the ‘Saint’ in his tireless acts of self-effacing goodness on behalf of the community, noble but expressionless in the manner of Roger Moore.

‘He let loose a barrage of bullets that would be heard around the world’: Rubin quotes Emerson on the shot that opened the American War of Independence, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a parallel between the Minute Men of Concord’s struggle for freedom and this close-to-psychotic shooting. On the other hand, when Rubin calls to mind this image of one man facing ‘fearful odds’, she seems to be echoing the knee-jerk reaction her book is intended to condemn. Her real point, however, is to emphasise the explosion of public feeling, and to show how high-profile stories can distort the course of justice. Even the New York Times is charged with inaccuracies in reporting the story: for several days after the facts had emerged the newspaper still ran an incorrect police report saying that the boys had been carrying sharpened screwdrivers, thus providing the gunman with a motive. Thanks to the wave of pro-Goetz feeling that flooded New York, the truth emerged only gradually. The four boys were all smaller than Goetz (a slight man himself) and aged around nineteen to his 35 – certainly they weren’t overpowering monsters. Then Goetz was armed with an illegal gun loaded with two ordinary bullets and three illegal dumdums. ‘My intention was to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible,’ he said. ‘If I had had more bullets I would have shot them again and again and again.’

Rubin commends the few commentators brave enough to swim against the tide of Goetz adulation. Jimmy Breslin of the Daily News spoke for the horror-struck onlookers – as many as 50 per cent were against Goetz, though they were less vocal than his admirers – when he said: ‘We in New York have arrived at that sourest of all moments, when people become what they hate.’ Breslin continued to keep the facts of the incident before his readers, reminding them that ‘there never were any sharpened screwdrivers and that ... no screwdrivers of any kind were ever shown to the gunman.’ As the extent of the damage to Darrell Cabey, the boy who had been shot twice with dumdums, became known, Breslin wrote: ‘The bottom line is that people are rejoicing over a 19-year-old kid who will be in a wheelchair for a lifetime. I’m sorry, include me out.’ Goetz ‘disappeared into the subway a fleeing gunman’, a black spokesman declared, ‘and emerged a fugitive darling of the law-abiding public – what if, instead of a “golden blond”, a black passenger had pulled an unlicensed pistol on ... four white teenagers?’ (It was the Police who described Goetz as a ‘golden blond’.) To question the mythologising of Goetz during the period of nationwide acclaim that greeted the shootings was ‘like being against motherhood and apple pie’. According to the press, whose failure to ‘illustrate’ the black boys Rubin deplores, they were variously ‘punks, would-be murderers or muggers’ without being brought to trial.

Who is this ‘golden blond’? Bernard Goetz was the youngest child of a German immigrant who made good. His father was given to explosive rages and to delivering written messages to his children when displeased. A lonely and introverted child, Bernard was bullied or ignored at school. When he was 12, his father was charged on 18 counts of ‘endangering the life and health of a child’ – pederasty, in other words. This ‘very coiledup’ and solitary boy was made to sit through every single day of the court hearings. His father was accused of plying a 15-year-old boy with cognac, fondling him and giving him five dollars as he let him go. Other 15-year-olds brought similar charges, but Goetz senior fought in the courts for over three years and eventually had the charge reduced to one of ‘disorderly conduct’. Bernard always refused to believe in his father’s unlawful activity: it was those ‘punk boys’ – an attitude of ‘denial’ which Rubin claims has a bearing on the shooting.

Much against his wishes, Bernard was packed off to boarding-school in Switzerland and in America for the next few years. He evaded the Vietnam draft by posing as a psychotic – hardly a difficult task for him – and graduated as a nuclear engineer. He couldn’t get on with his colleagues at work and eventually joined his father’s successful real-estate business in Florida, but quarrelled with his father over his skimping on the finish of the houses and left, never to speak to him again. He now runs a one-man electronic repair business. He was mugged and badly beaten in 1981, whereupon he applied for a gun licence which was refused – one of the many grievances that increased his feeling of being a loner. Goetz senior, significantly, died a few months before the shooting. There you have it – Tin Man with no heart and little sense of proportion. According to Rubin’s detailed account, Goetz, with his stocking-mask expression, was something of a ‘Hungerford killer’ for whom near-random violence against total strangers was the only release from inner turmoil.

Goetz deliberately elected to sit at the back of the carriage among the black boys rather than join the 21 whites at the front: moreover, the minute he saw the boys he had, by his own admission, ‘laid down my pattern of fire’. Onlookers said the youngsters were ‘just horsing around’ when they asked Goetz for money. But ‘five dollars’ was exactly what his father had given to the boys he had allegedly fondled and plied with brandy. That (to him) terrible phrase could well have been the trigger for the shooting, though he had already taken to roaming the streets with his gun and his grievances and would undoubtedly have shot at someone sooner or later.

To counteract Goetz’s high profile in the press Rubin gives a harrowing account of the injuries suffered by the four boys as well as describing how their families, fully aware of the boys’ likely fate on the streets round about the ‘projects’ (housing estates), had been doing their utmost to keep the children out of trouble. To make matters worse, there was, of course, no fancy medical care for their injuries. Darrell Cobey’s mother waited for hours in the hospital only to learn that the doctors were too slow in getting the oxygen to him. Darrell now has a mental age of eight. Had he died, which he nearly did, his death, as Rubin points out, would have put a different complexion on the case – although not, she hints, on the verdict.

Quiet Rage delivers Rubin’s judgment on the ‘system’ that resulted in Goetz’s acquittal in March 1987. She regards the public response, fanned by the media, as being largely responsible for the outcome. Goetz has also got ‘designer’ lawyers to thank for volunteering their services – extravagantly dressed, high-profile, greedy for publicity, famous/notorious for their ability to charm (‘The only reason I win cases is because I get a jury to trust me,’ said Barry Slotnick, one of Goetz’s defence team). If confirmation should be needed as to the existence of this kind of lawyer I refer the reader to Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which fleshes out this and many other aspects of the Goetz shooting. These expensive lawyers are hardened in negotiating the ‘system’ while remaining just this side of the law, and Goetz owes the long delay before sentence was delivered at least in part to them.

Rubin’s indictment of the media response and the District Attorney goes one stage further: she sees Goetz’s acquittal as a ritual sacrifice for a public that has refused to weigh up the evidence, preferring to rely on four-inch headlines. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for an anarchist crime they almost certainly did not commit. A similar way of thinking is likely to have been responsible for the execution of the Rosenbergs. All four were small and dark and were executed in a wave of public hysteria, supposedly so as to allieviate public ‘concern’ – or, as they have it nowadays, ‘in the interests of national security’.