A year before Steve Stephens posted his grotesque alleged murder of 74-year old Robert Goodwin, Sr. on Facebook, another murderer posted this quip, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” The poster in that case was Chris Harper Mercer, accused of a multiple murder at an Oregon community college in 2015. At the time, Oregon police investigators, and many of the relatives and friends of the murder victims not only refused to mention his name, but were livid at local papers for printing his name. The anger over giving non-stop, free publicity to media seeking, deranged killers has sparked campaigns by some victim rights groups not to give any media play to mass killers.
The great pity is that it won’t work. The instant Stephens posted his murderous video, he assured himself notoriety beyond his wildest dreams. It was horrific recognition of what studies show, and that’s that mass killers know exactly what they’re doing, and bank heavily on turning their killing spree into warped and perverse mass theater and spectacle. In that sense, Smith punched all the right public and media buttons. It was rank sensationalism. It was a murder. It was on Facebook. It was offbeat, bizarre, and quirky. He was black. This automatically conferred an inverted status, prestige and an almost anti-hero celebrity aura to the act and the killer.
Smith got an added boost for his warped notoriety when the relatives of Goodwin went on national TV and in a heart-felt and dramatic moment bestowed forgiveness on Stephens. This fed on itself and ignited a fierce debate over why a wanton killer deserved forgiveness, and a lot of head scratching about why African-Americans are the ones who always seem compelled to beg for forgiveness for those who commit the most hideous crimes against them.
But none of this would happen if Smith hadn’t grabbed the public and media spotlight. It’s an established axiom that body counts, with all their gory images, will always get a rush from the cameras. They make good copy, and that makes good ratings, and that makes good print sales. The wave of mass killings at malls schools some months back was endlessly looped on the networks. They were just as endlessly hashed over by shrinks, pro-gun and anti-gun control groups, and police officials. The public gleefully joined in the chatter about what could or couldn’t be done about the carnage and the killers. The cycle of murder promotion, revulsion, and fascination with it feeds on itself.
Stephens adds the final element to assure the murder gets top news billing. He’s black. This further sets his killing apart since he doesn’t fit the typical profile of a media savvy, murderer. That’s usually a quirky, young white male loner who invariably comes from a middle-class staid home. Stephens in turn is a roustabout from a Cleveland ghetto.
This raises a cringe among some blacks who fear that the relentless media attention that Stephens draws will again reinforce the deep and pervasive image of black males as inherently violent and crime prone. The scowling, fierce looking pictures of Stephens that are plastered over the screen play to the basest and darkest fears of the monster image of black males held by many.
Whether Stephen’s name was mentioned or his mug ever shown wouldn’t change a glaring and disturbing fact. That is the aiding and abetting of the killers in their calculated last gasp effort to get the world to see, hear and recognize the importance and significance they attach to their always convoluted, disjointed, and heinous acts. Stephens by going public on Facebook understood that. He got what he wanted, his fifteen minutes in the public eye, lots of media ink, while managing to stir a few racial stereotypes along the way. He’ll complete his staged act when he’s tracked down, or better still, for dramatic sake, gunned down. And since he was found dead that capped it. But did it?
Unfortunately, that won’t end the Stephen’s fascination. There’ll always be another waiting in the wings, now armed with the knowledge if he could do it, why can’t I? That’s the hideous fascination of it all.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the new ebook How the Democrats Can Win in The Trump Era (Amazon Kindle). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.