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Shooting a Stranger

The world has always been full of horror, but sometimes an act of evil will stand out from the rest and stay in our memory. The murder of Robert Godwin in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 16, 2017, was like that. He was a 74-year-old black pensioner out enjoying the mild spring weather as he looked for discarded aluminium cans to collect and earn a little money with. He’d just visited some of his many grandchildren and probably had no more on his mind than what he might have for dinner that evening or watch on the television.

Then a stranger pulled up near him in a car, got out, and approached him with a request that obviously puzzled him: to repeat a woman’s name. We know that Mr Godwin was puzzled because the stranger was filming this random encounter and would later upload the footage to Facebook. Mr Godwin said the name, then began to walk away, saying: “I don’t know nobody by that name.”

That’s when the stranger shot him at close range and left him dying on the ground. Soon millions of other strangers around the world would know about Mr Godwin’s final moments. It was another horror in an unhappy world, but this one would stay in the memory. Mr Godwin was so obviously a decent old man, minding his own business on what should have been just another peaceful day of his retirement. What had been done to him was so brutal and horrific. The combination of the two struck so hard at our sense of what is right and fitting.

That’s why the story will stay in the memory of so many people. When it hit the headlines, the killer was still on the loose. He’d had already confessed to it by uploading the video to his own Facebook page, where it was seen by thousands of people before being removed by the company. He was called Steve Stephens and like his victim he was a Black American. When his photographs were shown by the media, he didn’t look brutal or dangerous, but was there something a little crazy and unbalanced in his expression, a hint of narcissism and self-obsession?

Maybe yes, maybe no. When you know that someone has committed a horrible crime, it’s easy to imagine that you can see hints of their criminal psychology in photographs taken before the crime. What Stephens did wasn’t sane, but you could also say that it was a warped version of something that many sane people do every day: try to feel better about themselves by seeking attention online. They want other people to notice their existence, to know their name and be interested in their lives.

Steve Stephens certainly got the attention he was looking for. Millions of people knew his name and what he looked like. That’s why he was recognized when, two days after the shooting, he pulled up in his car at a McDonald’s restaurant many miles away in Pennsylvania. A quick-witted staff-member tried to stall him while the police were called. Stephens must have guessed what was going on when his order was delayed. He drove off, but the police spotted his car and gave chase.

They managed to stop the car and approached it to arrest Stephens. A shot rang out. Stevens had committed suicide, as had perhaps been his intention from the very beginning. Why, then, did he shoot Robert Godwin before he went? The answer seems sadly obvious: if he had simply committed suicide, he would have got little attention. By first committing a murder and uploading it to Facebook, he got a great deal of attention. The world danced to his tune for the brief time that remained to him on earth.

Or did it? Stephens was a sick man who did something evil, but he only attracted attention because deeds like his are rare. Our reaction to the murder of Robert Godwin is a sign that we still recognize the difference between good and evil. We haven’t been desensitized by the horrors of the world. We still care, but it’s only when people care that they can be manipulated by sad and crazy men like Steve Stephens. He got attention, but so did Robert Godwin. We saw the worst of humanity in one man and the best of humanity in another.