On Easter Sunday, Steve Stephens pulled up alongside 74-year-old Robert Godwin in his late model white Ford Fusion on a Cleveland street.
After a brief exchange during which Stephens asked the elderly mechanic to repeat the name of a woman, Stephens aimed a pistol at Godwin and executed the man at point-blank range.
These types of things – these senseless killings – unfortunately happen in our American society every day. What makes this one different is that the video of the murder was almost instantaneously loaded to social media via Facebook.
On Tuesday morning, an alert citizen spotted the car Stephens had been driving in his almost 50-hour run from the law in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Erie, Pennsylvania. After a brief pursuit of the vehicle by police, alerted by the citizen’s tip, Stephens took his own life.
Steve Stephens is dead. But his death won’t bring Robert Godwin back nor any solace to his family. Nor can we now put any measure to the amount of damage he’s caused our psyches, neither collectively nor individually.
Collectively, most of us are appalled by what we either saw or heard happened on social media, a place where we often gather – ironically, more so on holidays like Easter Sunday than on other occasions– to exchange pleasantries, prayers for healing, safety, good wishes, etc., and photos of our children and grandchildren.
Individually, the damage is deeply personal and much more difficult to gauge. It’s squirreled away in the minds of those whose minds are dark already, many from heredity, many from trauma, many for reasons known to no one. There are those among us who, seeing and hearing about Stephens’ deed, will somehow sickly be bolstered to commit their own atrocities. There will likely be copycats.
All of this makes us, once again, question a freedom, a right, which we would have once held so pure and so harmless. Social media allows all of us the right to express ourselves to a broader audience through words, pictures and, most recently, video. Most of us use it responsibly. Sure, we may have the occasional political spat that becomes out-of-hand and hurtful, but that pales in comparison to how those mentally disturbed or wrongly motivated among us might use such a platform.
Already, we’ve seen a young reporter and her videographer killed. Now, a 74-year-old loving father. There have been countless cases of cyberbullying – and worse –that fall short of loss of life.
Unfortunately, one senses that we’ve yet to see the worst.
I don’t have the answers here. I enjoy social media as much as anyone, though likely in smaller doses than many. What I’m saying is that we must somehow, if possible, discourage its misuse.
The best way to do that is to start with the youngest among us. As they grow old enough to begin their inevitable journey in the world of cyberspace, we must teach them to treat it as if it were real, talk to people as if they were sitting beside you and treat people as you would treat them to their face.
More than anything, we must teach them that the virtual world is no place to go for comfort or to express frustration. Parents and trained professionals are here for that.
I’m just as confused, frustrated and perplexed by what happened on Easter Sunday in Cleveland as anyone. I’m just as lost for answers.
Maybe the absolute place to begin is at the beginning.
By talking with one another.
Face to face.
Eye to eye.
Living, breathing person to living, breathing person.