It’s not an uncommon sight: can and bottle collectors on the streets, people with no or limited incomes working neighborhoods with large bags or old shopping carts filled to the brim, seeking redeemable plastic and metal containers in order to scrape together a few dollars at recycling machines. Their choice of profession isn’t all that different from the Jewish shmatteh collector-peddlers who graced New York’s Lower East Side decades ago: Hardworking people trying to make a modest living.
One such entrepreneur was Timothy Caughman. He was 66, the college-educated son of a home health-care aide and a pastor. In his prime, Mr. Caughman had worked as an event promoter and then for antipoverty programs in Queens. His hobby was collecting autographs of people he admired. He lived, as he had for years, alone in a room in a “transitional housing” Manhattan hotel, one of its few permanent residents. He was well-liked by the hotel’s managers and other residents.
One of his cousins said the family has roots in Georgia dating back to the 1700s, when their ancestors were first brought to America as slaves. By the accounts of people who knew him, Mr. Caughman was a benevolent, peaceful man.
Last Monday, as the can and bottle collector was bent over a trash bin on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, a well-dressed man came up behind him, pulled a long knife from beneath his coat, and stabbed Mr. Caughman to death.
Charged with that murder is a 28-year-old army veteran named James Harris Jackson. He had traveled to New York from Baltimore, where he grew up and lives, in order, he told investigators, to kill black men, like Mr. Caughman.
The confessed killer, who surrendered to police, was described by people whose lives had intersected with his as morose and disagreeable, someone who disdained contact with others. He described himself as a man on a mission — to put his hatred of black men, which he said he had harbored since he was a boy, into action.
Last week, the American Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief, and gasped no small gasp of shock, at the arrest in Israel of a teenager who, authorities say, was the person behind many if not most of the bomb threats against Jewish institutions over recent months. The calls were apparently the work of a disturbed individual, not a potentially violent anti-Semite.
But we know well that hatreds of all sorts in fact seethe in the dark hearts of some people, and sometimes erupt into criminal acts, including murder.
Hate crimes are on the rise nationwide. Just last week, too, a Florida man, James Medina, was ruled mentally competent to stand trial on charges of plotting last Pesach to bomb a shul and Jewish school in support of the Islamic State terrorist group. And a former firefighter in Savannah, Georgia, pleaded guilty for pointing a gun at black patrons of a restaurant and shouting racial slurs at them. Last month, a man shot and killed two Indian technology workers in Kansas, reportedly shouting at them “Get out of my country!”
Overseas, we just witnessed the latest jihadi murder-spree in the heart of London. Last month, a Chinese-Australian woman in a Sydney suburb was punched full-force in her face by a white Australian man who spoke the very same words as the Kansas murderer.
Islamist hatred, white supremacist hatred, anti-Jewish hatred, anti-immigrant hatred. It is depressing to contemplate the vile variety of hostilities out there.
Timothy Caughman’s cold-blooded killing was only the latest expression of such murderous animosities. But it happened not in rural America or in Europe or the Middle East, but on a Midtown Manhattan street. And thus is a reminder that “out there” isn’t necessarily very distant at all.
Our condolences go out to Mr. Caughman’s family and friends, and we express our hopes that such acts of hatred will soon become things of the past.
As Mr. Caughman was being stabbed, a woman nearby heard the commotion, but didn’t realize what was happening. She later told detectives, though, that she heard Mr. Caughman say, “Why are you doing this?”
And, of course, there was no response from the attacker. “Because he is black,” after all, isn’t an answer, any more than “because he is an immigrant” is, or “because he is a Jew.”
Evil doesn’t have answers; it just exists. May we soon merit the day when it doesn’t.