The mass slaughter at a country music festival in Las Vegas left scores of dead, hundreds of wounded and still no clue as to the motive of the perpetrator. Stephen Paddock was wealthy and seemingly in a happy relationship with a well-liked woman who loved him. He had no criminal or mental health records to raise red flags. Nor did he express any strong political or religious views which have commonly motivate mass killers and assassins. Paddock apparently even liked country music. Moreover, while he tended not to socialize with neighbors—hardly unusual—some people he interacted with found him quite affable.
There is, of course, the possibility that Paddock, like Charles Whitman, might have had a brain tumor which, if also located near the amygdala, could have contributed to his actions. Whitman climbed to the top of a tower at the University of Texas campus in 1966, shot for 96 minutes, killing 11 and wounding 31 from that vantage point. He had been concerned about violent urges for some time but had only been on medication for anxiety. Paddock has had an autopsy, but no results have been released thus far. Even if Paddock did have a tumor, one could not be certain it caused the mass killing. Even if it ultimately did, there may have been a method to his madness in the sense that his “mission”—for it seems he viewed himself as on one—required a coherent motive, even if one he alone embraced.
Perhaps, in the absence of more definitive evidence regarding his goal, we might consider his passion for high-stakes gambling. Surely there must be a psychological law of diminishing returns when one is a successful gambler, as he apparently was. Perhaps the rush of excitement had abated, and he was open to finding a greater “high.” Eventually, he embraced the idea of being a participant-observer in the highest stakes game of all: gambling with life: others’ and his. His secondary fascination, for guns, linked means and ends.
In the classic 1924 short story by Richard Connell, later made into a movie, The Most Dangerous Game, a big-game hunter, sated on shooting lions and tigers on safaris, decides to hunt humans instead—prey with the intellectual capabilities to defeat him by escape or even turning the tables on him. What if Paddock was thinking in a similar vein to General Zaroff, the human-hunter in the tale? By positioning himself at a great height and aided by a rifle scope, Paddock could possibly observe the frantic improvised tactics of his thousands of prey animals—which ones worked and which failed. The concert-goers were panicking, of course, but based on their assumptions of where danger was coming from and the possible decision-making criteria of the person or persons trying to kill them, they might have tried zigzagging, lying down, or running in a specific direction. He could get a hunter’s “high” by modifying his tactics to kill those who seemed to be succeeding in surviving.
Perhaps just as satisfying as hunting the ultimate prey, he knew he could eventually be discovered. This would make him prey as well, creating a compelling challenge and perhaps allowing him to think there was some “fairness” in the high-stakes game he concocted. Paddock rigged his environment with cameras to get an as early warning as possible of law enforcement’s discovery of his location. Still, he apparently had some hope of escape as his automobile contained additional ammunition and explosives. Obviously, at some point, he realized his alternatives had narrowed to being captured, killed or committing suicide and he chose the latter, possibly because it was the one that gave him control of the “game” until the end.
There is another possibility, probably unlikely, as Paddock, although very intelligent, was never described as a deep thinker. It flows from yet another work of fiction, a Franco-Dutch film from 1988, The Vanishing. In what might be considered a philosophical thriller, a middle-aged man, a beloved teacher, husband and father, decides all the praise he receives from others is not deserved if he has no free will. At one point, for example, he saves a stranger from drowning and wonders whether he was “programmed” by his nature to always do the right thing and therefore should not receive credit. To allow himself to accept the view others have of him he decides he must do something unspeakable. If he can succeed in egregiously violating his morality, it would prove he truly is a good person by choice. Perhaps Paddock thought of himself in a similar way. He might not have had many friends, but no one thought ill of him, and his family and girlfriend loved him. Maybe Paddock believed he needed to prove to himself he was “good” by exercising his freedom of choice in the most unlikely manner he could imagine or justify.
Finally, I can think of one more way of understanding Paddock’s heinous crime. I work as an online counselor, and I have had two clients contact me over the years who were curious about whether they were psychopaths or not. They had no desire to change, just to get their self-diagnosis right. The site I work on protects the anonymity of clients unless they indicate they are planning to harm others or themselves. The two had no such plans and said they never would act evilly, but did fit the profile of psychopaths regarding their utter lack of empathy for others. Their respective families and co-workers thought they were lovely people and their ignorance amused my clients. But it also seemed to annoy them, or, at least made them more distant from others because they could never be authentic around them. So, maybe Paddock was fully aware he had evil proclivities and wanted to let all those he knew comprehend what he already did. And, being a numbers man, perhaps wanted the pleasure of setting a record that would stand. We can only hope no one ever tries to surpass him, though the NRA and its facilitators in the media and government are going to make that difficult.