In Cleveland, Ohio, Steve Stephens shot a 74-year-old man he had never met before, Robert Godwin Sr., to death, and then posted a video of the Sunday killing on Facebook.
The horror of it all, the television anchors reminding us to shield our eyes and emotions from the video and the chilling words of Stephens himself, raise all the familiar questions. The explanations, so habitual they’ve become shorthand, and the ever-elusive, ever-desired solutions blip across our brains and dot our conversations.
“Gun control,” of course is one blip, though there is no reason to believe at this point Stephens has done anything that would have cost him his right to own a gun, and no one has said under what circumstances he obtained it. “Do more on mental health,” we murmur . . . but reports are that Stephens has been working for almost a decade at a behavioral health agency that serves children and does not have a criminal record. The addition of social media to the equation, and video, give this killing an eerie dystopian immediacy, but killings, and killers who want the public to know of them, predate smartphones and apps. The hand-wringing about the responsibilities of online companies as publishers and curators, and our voyeuristic involvement, is almost comforting as a sideshow, much easier to focus on than such a despair-inducing crime.
Sunday also marked 10 years since a mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus left 32 people dead, 17 wounded, and a nation shaken and bereft. Families and community members gathered in Blacksburg to be together and remember. On that day a decade ago, it seemed the campus killing spree would be ingrained in our memories forever, perhaps even remain the worst such shooting in our nation’s history. But the name of the killer, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, and the details of the event have faded for most of us since.
Part of that is the passage of time, and part of it is the onrush of other violence, from Aurora to Sandy Hook to San Bernadino to the Orlando Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed and 53 were wounded last June. That is, for now, the deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history, having relegated Virginia Tech to second place.
In the decade since Virginia Tech, it feels like we have gotten exactly nowhere addressing gun violence. We have not even agreed on what to address, or how. Objectively, we know that homicide rates are down, not up, that for most of us this nation is safe and this kind of violence is vanishingly rare.
But it is not so rare that any one incident’s details remain vivid in our minds. It is not so rare that it does not affect our politics and perspective, our mood and serenity and quality of life.
And now it is right there on the screen. Godwin, trying to speak to Stephens before he is killed, as confused about what is happening as we are, and as powerless to change it.