THE American legal system at its best is a neutral arbiter. That is, it seeks to penetrate beyond the contesting personal vantagepoints and popular emotions of the moment to reach the essential finding that involves parties to a dispute. It is out of this more precise reconstruction of events -- and discarding of falsehood -- that a sense of fairness, of justice, can be applied to the details of a particular case. In this sense, it is appropriate that the so-called ``Goetz case'' will now go before a jury.
Mr. Goetz himself says that will be the ``best thing.'' Bernhard Goetz, it will be recalled, is the self-employed New York engineer who admits shooting four youths during an alleged robbery attempt on an IRT subway train. He contends that he acted out of self-defense. The alleged assailants, meanwhile, one of whom was severely injured by Mr. Goetz, maintain that Goetz deliberately shot them without provocation. A first grand jury had charged Goetz only with an illegal weapons offense. Now, after reportedly obtaining new evidence -- including, apparently, a new witness -- Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau has brought the matter before a second grand jury, which has indicted Mr. Goetz on four charges of attempted murder. Two of the youths who went before the grand jury were given immunity from prosecution.
What is unfortunate about the Goetz case -- beyond, of course, the tragic details about the incident itself -- is that it has become a symbol to so many people about larger issues of law and order in American society. Political leaders of all ideological persuasions have commented on the case. The media has used the shooting for its own ends. Ethnic and racial overtones have entered into public discussion of the incident, since Mr. Goetz is white and the four youths are black.
Many New Yorkers, and many Americans elsewhere, see the case as symbolizing a breakdown in law and order in America's cities and the need for individuals to take bold actions to defend themselves. Others see the case as illustrating what can happen when an unchecked vigilante mentality accompanies a widespread possession of handguns by Americans. And so on.
In part the case is about all these issues.
But it is important to keep the incident in proportion -- that it is a unique, particular incident involving particular individuals.
The Goetz case's implications will become more apparent as the facts in the case are impartially weighed by a jury in a legal setting -- not in the media, or on the streets of public emotion.