Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Death Wish and Bernhard Goetz - Both An Inspiration

I watched Death Wish last night. Lousy filming, lousy sound, lousy acting (except for Charles Bronson and Vincent Gardenia), but a great plot; and an absolutely powerfully inspirational film. I remember back in the mid-late 70's, and the early to mid 80s, that this movie was played to the hilt on local TV stations whenever the crime rate went up in New York City. If I recall correctly, there was at least one period in there where it was on one channel at least 10 times in a one week period. That was something almost unheard of back then on broadcast television especially considering the fact that the stations all tuned out by about 4AM at the latest. Yes, if you turned on the TV in the wee hours of the AM, all you might get was a test pattern. Still though, one of the local channels, it was either channel 5, 9 or 11, and I think it was channel 9 (don't recall the actual channel call sign - but maybe WXOR or WPIX, or something like those) played it over and over again at the height of a crime wave that had muggings, assaults, rapes, and crimes on the streets and in the subways going through the roof. It was sort of as if this movie was seen as the Great White Hope because in those days most of the crime was attributed, correctly or incorrectly, as caused by African-Americans. Well after a week or two of these channels playing Death Wish over and over again, I guess the bad guys, whatever their race might have been, got the idea that maybe, just maybe, there was some New Yorker out there who was going to take the hint, and who was going to ride the subways or stroll the streets just waiting for some goon to try to accost him and then BANG, BANG, BANG! I know there was probably at least one New Yorker doing just that, hoping for an arse hat to try to mug him, and then he (the good guy) was hoping to get to act in self defense, or defense of another, and would put a stop to the bad guy. Of course I was working my first job as a Border Patrol Agent from late 79 through October 83, so if it was me I would have had to have been on vacation; although after 83 it would have been a different story. In other words no it was not me, but had I been accosted with life threatening force I certainly would have defended myself with the same.

So I am not saying it was me though it could have been me, but I am saying that I know of at least one good citizen who did this quite a few, or should I say several, times. Heck there must have been more than just me one guy out there on the lookout for evildoers. If not, at least the bad guys must have thought it the case, because sure as shootin the crime rate took a nosedive after this movie was played over and over again. I have got to hand it to whomever it was who made the decision to play this movie in what seemed like an almost constant barrage of the senses if only because it was almost a public service message. Besides that is was a message that seemed to work, at least temporarily. Then again, it wasn't just a television fantasy, or the product of the paranoid imaginations of the dirtbags who commit such crimes, because there were armed citizens, and even some real vigilantes, out there. In the mid seventies they were out there with whatever weapons they could bring to hand like baseball bats, chains, clubs, canes, knives, machetes, and even just fists; and they were looking for The Son of Sam. I know, I was out there hoping to find him too. All of my friends were there in 76 and 77 - but all we had were bats and chains; yet I consider him lucky we did not come across him in the act. We would have been richer with the reward, the people of NYC would have been safer without him, and he would have been – well let’s just say he would not have been on a killing spree any longer.

Then, a short time later, in the early 80s there was another guy out there who was maybe or maybe not actually looking for trouble, and who was ready if the worst came upon him. He was Bernie Goetz. That was in December 1984. If Mr. Goetz does not fit, to some small degree, the character of Death Wish's Paul Kersey, then no one does. Bernie Goetz was riding on the NYC subway when he was approached by at least two of four scumbags African-American youths, at least one of whom demanded money from him. After the demand was made twice, Mr. Goetz rose from his seat, drew a .38 caliber revolver, and fired five shots in rapid succession. Here is how the shooting part it is reported in Wikipedia (I don’t put too much faith in Wikipedia but as I recall this part seems pretty accurate, although the part about the screwdrivers is questionable to me – as I recall two of them were armed with screwdrivers and the police found them to have been armed with such, but you have to go to the complete Wikipedia article to read about that at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Goetz ):

"After the second demand or request for money, Goetz rose from his seat, and from beneath his blue windbreaker fast-drew a
.38 Special five-shot Smith & Wesson revolver and fired five shots with speed shooting. (Speed shooting is a very fast technique, primarily effective at close range, where the shooter initiates trigger pull prior to the sights being aligned on the target.) In media interviews, Goetz, who had prior firearms and target shooting experience, described how he discharged all five rounds in less than 1.6 seconds. (Some eyewitness testimony stated all shots were fired within one second.) The first hit Canty in the center of the chest; the second shot struck Allen in his back and came out his arm; the third shot hit the subway wall just in front of Cabey; the fourth shot hit Cabey in the left side, severing his spinal cord and rendering him paraplegic; the fifth shot went through Ramseur's arm and lodged itself in his left side. Goetz then immediately looked at the first two men to make sure they were "taken care of." Goetz then saw Cabey moving on the bench and confessed to approaching Cabey and saying, "You don't look too bad; here's another," and then attempted to shoot Cabey again in the stomach, with an empty gun. Cabey, who was briefly standing prior to the shooting, was sitting on the subway bench during all attempted shots. In his subsequent police statement, Goetz explained, "if I had had more [bullets], I would have shot them again, and again, and again." All four men survived, though Cabey was permanently paralyzed and suffered brain damage as a result of the bullet that severed his spine."

Goetz fled. He eventually turned himself in to authorities. At least one of the four youths was reported to have admitted they were intent on robbing Goetz. Even though he surrendered, if Mr. Goetz would have kept his mouth shut, if he would have let the witnesses do the talking, if he would have let the 4 guys he shot do the talking, he probably only would have been convicted of possession of a firearm and never been convicted in civil court. Heck the first grand jury did not charge him with anything but weapons charges, they found he had not committed a crime in the shootings. A second grand jury indicted him but the charges were later dismissed in part reportedly because of the fact that one of the subjects had said they were robbing Goetz at the time of the shootings. The NY State Court of Appeals (NY’s highest court) overturned the dismissal of the charges and Goetz went to trial. He should have kept his mouth shut, but unlike Paul Kersey in Death Wish, Mr. Goetz apparently suffered from Ralph Kramden’s biggest fault: A BIG MOUTH!

It is quite possible, that had Goetz remained silent, he would have even been told to get out of town as had Paul Kersey been told by the NYPD detective played by Vincent Gardenia in Death Wish. Instead of keeping quiet though, Goetz blabbed; not only did he blab, but he ranted. He told police that he wanted to kill the 4 whom he had shot, he said he wanted to murder them. He appeared to be a raving madman. I think in fact he was somewhat mad, but I think that was after the fact, due to the shock of the shooting. My personal opinion was then, and is now, that Bernhard Goetz fired the first shots in self defense, and continued shooting in the heat of the moment. After all was done he was, in my opinion, foolish. Yet he was, in my opinion, foolish for only one thing that he did. He was not foolish because he illegally carried a gun. While I do not condone violating the law, I can understand why someone would want to be armed on the NYC subway system - especially back then because it was worse than the wild west if only because those who wound up getting robbed or otherwise accosted had no way to reasonably fight back. They lived in a society where just about only the bad guys were armed (hmm, just like that today as far as being armed in NYC goes). He was not foolish because he practiced with his gun. The fact is he was quite the marksman, and he was quick too. He knew how to shoot for sure, and if you are going to carry a gun you may as well know how to use it well. He was not foolish because he was willing to shoot someone to protect himself or others from grave bodily harm or death at the hands of people he believed were bad guys. That is the right, and the duty, of every human being. He was not even foolish because he may have jumped the gun and shot these guys before they actually posed a verifiable threat to his life or limbs (though I think had it spelled it out without bravado, after thinking first, he certainly would have explained his way out of the shooting charges as self defense and would have won his civil case). That decision, the decision to fire when he did, was one made under the stress of the moment, and had he kept quiet, the chances are that witnesses who came forward would have supported his side of the events enough, and the 4 youths reported conflicting stories would have discredited themselves enough to have Mr. Goetz not only walk free on the shooting/attempted murder charges, but also walk away with all of his money in his pocket. As it wound up, he did get robbed in the end. No he was not foolish for any of those things; but he was, in my opinion, foolish because of his big mouth by which he wrote his own express train ticket to the slammer on weapons charges, and the sentence was increased after he lost an appeal; and because I believe it was in great part his boasting that caused him to lose the civil trial wherein he lost 43 million dollars. A lot of money. Of course he filed bankruptcy and reportedly has not paid anything yet, but should the he ever win the lottery, he will not likely see a penny of it. The amazing thing is that he was not convicted of the shooting charges (which in fact were attempted murder charges), but only of a weapons charge. Still had his mouth remained sealed, he probably would have not been charged with attempted murder, and would have likely been hailed as a hero, given a parade, given some sort of a reward, never been found guilty of anything in either the criminal or civil cases, and he maybe would have done no jail time at all. Those who lived through that time in NYC can tell you, Bernie Goetz was considered a hero by most New Yorkers. Even the CORE was standing strong behind him. As it was though, his case dragged on for many years, he was subjected to criminal trial, civil trial, a criminal conviction, a jail sentence, and a decision against him in civil court by which he owes someone 43 million dollars. There is one other thing though about which he was not, in my opinion, foolish at all; and I have got to say this one thing makes up for anything he did that may have been foolish in my view. He came out a survivor, and a winner, in a fight for his life because he was prepared to do just that, fight for his life.

I don’t know if those guys were really trying to rob him, I believe though that such is exactly what they were doing. For all I know, they could have been angels, but the record seems to indicate at least some of them were not. The thing is though that, in my opinion, Mr. Goetz read the situation correctly, and he was, as I believe it to have been, in grave danger when he drew and fired; or at least a reasonable person would have thought so. (this case later set new precedent in that 'what a reasonable person would have believed now included what a reasonable person would have believed based upon his own life's experience). Heck at least one of the guys later said they were robbing him, and if I recall correctly three of them wound up admitting such. I do think that Mr. Goetz sort of flipped out after the first shots, or maybe just because he thought he was being robbed, then he fell back on stuff he had seen in movies, and that included his big mouth ala Clint Eastwood characters like Dirty Harry. Lucky for him though, someone, or some few, on the jury on the criminal case must have seen Death Wish. It was an inspirational movie back then; and I am pretty darned rootin tootin shootin sure that Bernie Goetz was inspired by it; and so were his jurors at least on the criminal trial. They were also effected by something else – the crime rates. Read the Wikipedia article in full, look at the crime rates in NYC as compared to the rest of the nation – 70% higher in violent crimes! WOW. NYC needed something, and had Charles Bronson been available to take the place of Bernie Goetz in real life, the city of New York would have greeted him with open arms. Instead Bernhard Goetz, filled in for Bronson when it came to reality. When you think about it, had Goetz never turned himself in (it was imminent though that he would be captured as the police were already zeroing in on him), had he somehow remained free and then returned to New York once things had cooled down, well maybe - just maybe - he would have done it again. Maybe, like the character of Paul Kersey, Goetz would have gone hunting, so to speak, using himself as bait on a regular basis. He would have gone looking for trouble in the hopes of doing something about it. My guess is that if such would have happened, if by some quirk of fate Goetz had played and replayed the role of Paul Kersey in real life, and had kept his mouth shut as did Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish, the crime rate in NYC would have hit rock bottom, and the people of NY still would be holding Bernie Goetz 'Mystery Vigilante Day' as an annual celebration, and had the NYPD ever by chance identified him, they very well may have told him: "Get out of town", and then just looked the other way.

Yes Death Wish was one hell of an inspirational movie, and it still is today. Bernhard Goetz's actions were also inspirational, so much so that while I was watching Death Wish, I was also thinking of him and the 4 guys he shot. I watched the movie last night, I thought about Bernie Goetz, I thought about my son Brendan Bernhard Bartley (a coincidence to the Goetz name, the Bernhard in my son's name comes from my great-grandfather) and my having taught him how to shoot so as to be able to not only enjoy the sport but to be able to defend himself; and then this afternoon I went to the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range, and I cranked off about 300-400 rounds. No I am not about to take a ride on the subways, armed to the teeth, I gave up riding the NYC transit system, except for rare travel on it, long ago. Nor am I going to, as much as I might be inspired to, go for a late night stroll in the streets of any of the boroughs of NYC taking the chance that I either will wind up a statistic in the mix of some dirtbag's rap sheet or a hero; last time I did something like that (not pre-intentionally mind you) I wound up getting the nickname Ballseye!

By the way, just to let you know: Charles Bronson, he is gone forever, but Death Wish remains an all time classic. As for Bernie Goetz, he and those shootings also remain an all time classic. According to Wikipedia, he is still living in NYC. He has run for mayor and other public office. He is involved in the so called 'Squirrel Community' and he cares for and feeds NYC squirrels (a favorite pastime of many New Yorkers). He still runs his own electronics related business, which is supposedly called Vigilante Electronics (I will have to look him up someday and maybe visit his shop if he has one), and supposedly has not paid a cent of that settlement. I'd be willing to bet one other thing about him, I'd bet that no one has had the balls to try to rob him since way back in 1984; there is just too much of Paul Kersey in him. Oh, and lest I forget, the crime rate in NY City started to plummet after the Goetz shootings, and they then remained in a downward spiral after that. Of course this is not just due to what he did on the subway, but you can bet he and his actions were at least in part one heck of an inspiration for bad guys to think twice. One other thing to bet on, at least I would bet it - he saw Death Wish before the shootings.

All the best,
Glenn B