The locus in the crosshairs
A brutal Facebook murder shows the ordinariness of our sharing culture
The Facebook video of a homicide was surely inevitable. This isn’t the same as saying that video murders soon will become all the rage, but it was more likely to happen eventually than not.
Forget the suspected killer Steve Stephens, who took his own life Tuesday after a brief police pursuit in Erie, Pa. If not he, then someone else would have become “that guy who killed an old man while filming himself doing it.”
Shooting 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr. was apparently a random act. Acquaintances described Mr. Stephens as a “creep” who, as a teen, used a pet python to try to woo women. Ah, yes, the old python trick.
Nuance, one notes, was not his forte.
But — wait for it — he had a good personality. And, finally, he worked in children’s mental health.
Let’s create a monster, shall we? The alleged killer walks around seducing girls with a giant snake that gives lethal hugs, once slapped to death his pet parakeet (according to an erstwhile neighbor), and likes to video himself committing at least one murder, though he claimed to a friend in a telephone conversation (also filmed) that he had killed 13.
As the Cleveland police chief put it, “he’s got deep, deep issues.”
We don’t know whether Mr. Stephens was interested in taking lives for the thrill of the kill, or whether he was primarily interested in capturing himself in the act. But it seems obvious that the video was essential to the murder.
This is the modern take on the tree falling in the forest. If no one were to see Mr. Stephens’ murderous act, would the experience have mattered as much? Or at all?
The randomness of the victim suggests a lack of intent beyond the placement of a bullet in some unsuspecting person’s head. Imagine. Mr. Stephens aimed the barrel of his weapon at Mr. Godwin’s forehead, watched as Mr. Godwin held up his hands, while looking at Mr. Stephens — who was taking moving pictures.
Inconceivable, yet it was posted for all to see.
The banality of the act — random, ruthless and meaningless — underscored the truly hideous purpose of Mr. Stephens’ brief moment on the world stage. Not 15 minutes of fame, but eternity in the viral universe. Murdering a stranger was simply the worst thing he could do to ensure that everyone would know his name.
Which is why Mr. Godwin’s sad and terrible death was perhaps fateful. He was the man stepping off the curb just as the bus swerved too close, the fisherman on the lake when lightning found his fishing rod. Mr. Godwin was simply there when a roving human eye found him, when the camera lens shuttered into focus, and his 74 years on Earth suddenly became the locus in the crosshairs of an ultimate exhibitionist.
I’ve seen only still shots of the murder taken from the film and wouldn’t watch the tape if I could. Morbid curiosity has its limits — or should. But for much of the world these days, watching other people performing all manner of activities has become routine, which is to say, ordinary.
Indeed, people will film themselves doing just about anything and everything. Younger folks who’ve been documented since birth, as well as during, and have never known a mobilephone-free moment, perhaps can’t fathom why they shouldn’t “share” their every whim, appetite and mood.
I’d like to think it’s because no one else is that interested, but apparently lots of other people are. For every exhibitionist, there are a million voyeurs. We’re all so riveted to our screens that a moment not captured and telegraphed to our thousands of social media “friends” may as well not have happened.
Would Mr. Godwin still be alive if Mr. Stephens’ battery had died?
The temptations are great, no doubt, and I’m no high priestess of moral will, though I do hate myself every time I share. And of course I was put on this planet to worry, which I also do publicly. I worry that the underlying imperative in our see-and-be-seen culture — one increasingly without even the expectation of privacy — soon leads to the expectation that one
shouldn’t have any privacy. Some slippery slopes really are slippery.
Whatever secrets Mr. Stephens took to his Maker when he took his own life, we’ll never know. But someone else’s secret urges or desires are always on the verge of display — and oneupmanship is the coin of the Facebook realm.
Would that the next worst thing were not inevitable.