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Look for the story behind the stories

Column/Thomas T. Huang

People often form opinions on matters they know little about. Some don't have the time to think. Others don't care about what they say.

They read newspaper articles and editorials and make their judgments. Most won't look further into the issues to fully understand them. That is why there is a burden on the newspaper.

The newspaper must find and report all sides to a story. Often it fails. Many officials aren't willing to explain their views.

It is then up to the public to find out what is going on. But throughout this nation we seem to be unwilling.

Hey man, got a light?

Study Darrell Cabey's junior high school graduation picture. Try not to make judgments. A gown conceals most of his checkered shirt and brown tie. The cap sits askew on his head, hiding the top of his short Afro. His eyes stare off to the distance behind a flat nose. His black skin reflects the flash of the camera.

In 1973, Cabey's father was killed by a man who stole his cab. Cabey is a high school dropout. He lives with five brothers and one sister in a five-room apartment in the Bronx. He was arrested for trying to rob three men with a shotgun.

"He's the type of kid who's very polite, mannerly and wants to help," his mother says. "But when he got around his friends -- peer pressure, I guess -- there was a difference. He had his problems, living in the area we live in, being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He lies in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the waist down. He is 19 years old, in critical condition. He has fallen into a coma.

Hey man, got the time?

Bernhard Hugo Goetz is losing his hair. In blonde straggles, it lies matted on his forehead. He sweats and leaves his parka open and the top button of his shirt undone. His face is thin and pale. It ends in a sharp red cut which is his mouth.

When Goetz was thirteen, his father was arrested on charges of molesting two teenage boys. Goetz pretended to be mentally ill to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

He is a 37-year-old self-employed electronics engineer who worked on petitions to put trash cans and trees in his neighborhood. "He was more concerned with other people's well-being than most people are," one of his neighbors says.

But in January, 1981, in a subway station, three young men robbed him of $1000 of electronics equipment. One tried to shove him through a glass door, tearing cartilage in Goetz's chest. The mugger's case would be settled in a non-criminal mediation process. Goetz was disillusioned, even though his attacker was eventually jailed.

Hey man, got five dollars for me and my friends to play video games?

At 1:50 pm on Dec. 22, the No. 2 IRT express finds itself between the Canal and Chambers Street stations.

Yes. I have five dollars for each of you.

Walter Berns is a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He believes that the pro-Goetz sentiment across the country is healthy, based on a moral indignation about crime.

"It's an expression of an honest and decent sentiment," he says. "Anger, coming from someone who has not been personally victimized by a criminal, is an expression of concern for fellow citizens. That expression should not be derided or despised."

Walter Berns is also an idealist.

I do not condemn Bernhard Goetz. He is a troubled man who was pushed too far into the anarchy of the New York subway system. I do not condemn Darrell Cabey. He is a troubled boy who grew up in the anarchy of his city.

I condemn the applause which echoed the shots in the subway. Nobody understood what happened. They were too lazy.

I grew up as a witness to prime-time shootouts after dinner. My friend plays video games where he is told from the start who is good and who is bad.

I cheer when Dirty Harry empties his gun into a punk on a rollercoaster, because the punk has done so many bad things in the two hours before the bloody climax. It's easy. It feels good.

But real-life violence is not that clear-cut. Cabey may have planned to commit a crime, but in the end he did not. Goetz may not have planned to commit a crime, but in the end, he shot four boys, two in the back.

I still want to judge. I've watched too many commercials and traded my compassion for thirty-second emotions. Some hope a teenager will die because he symbolizes terrorism. Others want Goetz to run for mayor.

We live in an age of expanded electronic communications. But all our televisions, motion pictures, newspapers, and video games cannot hide this fact: we haven't left the Wild West.

We try to outgun each other with empty opinions. They are empty because no one wants to understand the other.