Newsletter subscribe

Editor's Choice, Featured, Hot News, News

Why He Did It – Why the Las Vegas Shooter Did It

Posted: October 12, 2017 at 10:15 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

In today’s fame-obsessed world, mass killings have become a bloody route to immortality.

Why did he do it?

A week after the worst mass killing in modern American history, the search for the motive behind Stephen Paddock’s murderous spree in Las Vegas has become a national obsession. Remarkably, though, there appears to be not a scintilla of evidence to support the explanations that have been proposed so far—from the claim that he had secretly become a soldier for ISIS to the possibility that his gambling had led him into a financial mess. The latest theory—that he had a deep, serious but secret mental illness—seems less like a diagnosis than a tautology.

Perhaps law enforcement will uncover a physiological cause. Charles Whitman, who could be called the father of the modern mass killing after he climbed the University of Texas bell tower in Austin one day in 1966 and shot dead 17 people on the ground below, was found to have a brain tumor that, in the view of expert investigators, may have caused him to become a killer. Whitman is by no means the only case of brain injury leading to violent behavior. (The Clark County Coroner’s Office has not announced when an autopsy report will be released.)

Absent a pathologist’s determination, though, it’s worth considering the message embedded in the Vegas killer’s actions even if there is no trail leading to a specific grievance or hatred: Stephen Paddock was determined to make his mark as the most effective mass murderer in American history. A man whose existence was unremarkable, even forgettable, wanted to immortalize himself as a champion in an event that has become in recent years horrifyingly competitive, with six new records since Whitman’s shooting and three in just the last decade.

Paddock thus becomes the latest embodiment of a pattern that has emerged in recent decades. In a world gushing with information about fresh atrocities on the internet and social media, one where screaming chyrons and shouting talk radio hosts have become ubiquitous, a small number of individuals seek to make their mark through record-setting violence. By doing so, they hope to distinguish lives hitherto marked by insignificance or failure.

Paddock’s preparation tells the story. He spent a year assiduously purchasing guns at different stores in different states so that he could amass at least 47 weapons—23 of which he secreted into his Mandalay Bay hotel room—so as not to set off any of the alarms that multiple simultaneous purchases would activate. He took full advantage of the laxity of U.S. gun laws and modified a dozen of the weapons so they could operate as automatic weapons, which are illegal, and increase the amount of fire on his victims, who would ultimately number 58 dead and nearly 500 injured. (How deadly was it? Consider that the weeklong invasion of Panama in 1990 cost 23 U.S. lives and 325 wounded.)

Paddock carefully scouted locations in Boston, Chicago and elsewhere in Las Vegas to find the ideal combination of richest target and best firing position, making full use of the advantage an elevated firing point would bring. Indeed, the only documentary evidence of his that has come to light so far is a piece of paper with calculations aimed at maximizing the carnage. He shot at distant jet fuel tanks from his 32nd floor suite with special incendiary bullets, presumably in an effort to increase the death toll. He prepared to turn his car into a bomb and set up surveillance cameras so he was ready to fight off a police assault. The presence of another camera in the room raises the question of whether he intended to record himself in action for posterity. It’s a good bet that investigation into his computer searches will reveal extensive study of other mass killings. Paddock’s action was not a spontaneous eruption of violence but the methodical pursuit of carnage.

If Paddock were the only person to seek transcendence through mass murder, his case might be of passing interest. But observers of mass killers and terrorists can attest he is not a one-off. Not all of these murderers have a comparable obsession with technical efficiency—though Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did—and many of them were deeply interested in politics or religion, which Eric Paddock claims his brother Stephen was not. But all have sought to make a mark that will distinguish them far beyond the ordinary killers and assure them an enduring fame.

Many appear to commit their crimes to redeem broken lives with an act of historic significance. Omar Mateen, the shooter in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub—the worst recorded mass killing prior to Las Vegas—was a lifelong screw-up who had a hard time holding a job, staying out of trouble or staying in a marriage. Though the media focus has been on his claim of allegiance to ISIS, he also had also declared himself a supporter of that group’s sectarian foe, Hezbollah.

Still unresolved in Mateen’s case is the question of confusion of sexual orientation. Taken together, the snarl of possible motives points toward the conclusion that the slaughter he committed was as much about accomplishing something dramatic, clear and unambiguous on a grand scale as it was about advancing a jihadist agenda.

Before him, Faisal Shazhad, the Times Square would-be bomber of 2010, was one of a host of other cases of individuals determined to recoup a life of serial failures in business and love with a major terrorist act. Mohamad Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Nice truck driver who killed 86 people last year, was a champion bungler before becoming a pioneer of the vehicular assault, with drug troubles, job troubles (he fell asleep at the wheel of van and was fired), relationship troubles and multiple arrests before a sudden conversion and radicalization shortly before his Bastille Day massacre.

Paddock, who had acquired enough wealth to finance his gambling and free himself from a workplace and other human entanglements, might come across like he belongs in a different class from these failures. But it’s not hard to imagine that someone with his intelligence and comparatively unimpressive career could feel he had something to prove—much like Anders Breivik, the social misfit and racist who killed 87 people in single day in Norway in 2011 while believing he would be a hero to future generations of fighters for a culturally pure Europe.

Immortality is hardly a new ambition. Aristotle wrote in The Ethics that to immortalize oneself is one of the highest goals of human life—a pursuit that involved making oneself like one of the gods as well as achieving timeless stature. For most of history, those who were said to have achieved immortality fell into familiar categories: artists and thinkers who created what W.B. Yeats called “monuments of unageing intellect,” or rulers and warriors, who could be benevolent or barbaric, Marcus Aurelius or Timur, who left behind towers built of human skulls—said to number 70,000 in all—after the sack of Isfahan.

Today, however, thanks to technology and the modern “frenzy of renown,” all that has changed. A man becomes famous for jumping from a balloon 24 miles over the Earth to set a world record. A woman succeeds on her fifth try to swim from Cuba to Florida. Every four years, history is made on an hourly basis during the Olympics. Entire subcultures of YouTubers revel in their perpetual existence on the internet.

In the past, it took genius or armies to win a place in the history books. Now, with easily available weaponry and bump stocks in the United States, vans and trucks in Europe, and make-it-at-home TATP, the explosive of choice for today’s terrorist, a solitary man can be an army of destruction. In a Guinness Book of World Records world, the routes to immortality are many. Perhaps we will find evidence of some all-enveloping rage that set Paddock off on his journey to be a killer without equal. But in a crowded, noisy era, we should not underestimate how the simple impulse to be famous can drive the basest, most appalling actions.





Comments (0)

write a comment

Name E-mail Website Comment