On October 1, 2017, Stephen Paddock (age 64), an unremarkable gambler in the Las Vegas gambling community opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. As of the time of this writing, 58 people who had gathered at a country music festival were killed and approximately 500 others were wounded—statistics usually reserved for war zones. But there was other damage as well. Paddock attempted to start a conflagration by firing at fuel tanks at the nearby airport. If those tanks had exploded, perhaps thousands would have been injured. We know there were other injuries, emotional injuries. Those are the injuries survivors, family, responders, friends, neighbors, medical personnel will endure for years.
As the police were closing in on Paddock, he shot himself; perhaps for the better, considering he could have done even more damage. But it leaves us with many unanswered questions. Why would he do that? What was the trigger? What was bothering him so much he had to do this? What was his motive? How do we prevent such a thing from happening again? Who could do such a thing?
One of the worst mass killings in U.S. history could have been much worse if not for the quick and truly heroic efforts of hotel security personnel and first responders, including hospital personnel who were literally able to bring people back from the dead. It was not because Paddock took any kind of pity on his victims.
The questions being asked as to why this tragedy happened are legitimate. Usually we find out why. We look for similarities, we look for patterns, we look for motives, for anything we can grasp on to that somehow makes sense, just so that we can feel safer or to soothe the mind that does not comprehend the incomprehensible.
To kill a lot of people at a distance you either need many weapons, many bullets, or explosives. That is a fact. Mass killers have that in common. Beyond that, things get tricky. What drives the behavior? That varies from individual to individual.
We want to link one mass killer with another and sometimes that is possible, especially if they have characteristics such as malignant narcissism, paranoia, and "wound collecting." That explains the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, the Oslo shooter, Anders Behring Breivik (he killed 69, and others.
Or we want to show that there is some sort of organic brain anomaly such as a brain tumor, as in the case of the University of Texas tower shooter, Charles Whitman. Things like that help us to understand, but in reality, knowing a cause really isn’t fulfilling—it does not rise to make us whole, nor does it ever excuse what happened. No motive ever satisfies.
We may never know all the reasons why a person does the things they do. In the case of Stephen Paddock, a man who seems to be a so “average” to some and a cipher to others, we may never understand the reasons. But does that matter? It does and it doesn’t. Let me explain.
As a former criminal profiler in the FBI, I was taught that in the absence of facts you go with statistics. In the absence of both, you have to look at the crime itself. In this case the evidence speaks loudly.
Stephen Paddock planned to kill with military precision, even though he had never been in the military. He had a strategically placed room, corner angle, where he could shoot from two viable vectors—giving him a lethal tactical advantage. He used high-powered rapid or automatic weapons, meticulously accrued over time so as to go unnoticed. He fired from a advantageous position, in the dark, on a pre-selected group of people knowing they would be 1) densely concentrated and 2) corralled by fences at this popular outdoor concert. He did not want them to escape and he knew the loud music would mask his weapons—a perfect location and timing that was well thought out.
Paddock’s cunning reveals that he used rounds without tracers so that his exact location could not be immediately pinpointed. He appears to have had an escape plan, perhaps foolishly hoping that the hotel would be slow to evacuate guests, giving him time to kill even more. He guessed wrong, and the well-placed cameras he bought to keep an eye out for him were not enough.
But let’s be clear about one thing that we learned from this crime and the crime scene. Paddock killed humans with “reptilian indifference”; of that there is no question. He did not seem bothered by planning for this event and executing humans as they enjoyed a concert.
So, who does something like this? Who is stealthy enough to not get noticed? Who is criminally facile, able to lie, able to contain emotions, feels unrestrained, is not bothered by laws or morality or ethics to kill wantonly. Who remains cool under extreme pressure? The psychopath, that is who. People without a conscience, according to the world renowned expert on psychopaths, Robert Hare. Someone without a conscience can do these terrible things and more. Of that we should have no doubts.
Even if Paddock was a psychopath, the question remains, why? Why did he do it, what was his motive? Brace yourself. Because as one psychopath, a serial killer, told me years ago, when I asked him why he had done these terrible crimes? “Because I can.” That should make you shiver.
Why did Ted Bundy, a good-looking man kill women who would have easily dated him? Because he could. Why did Luis Alfredo Garavito kill over 150 children in Colombia? Because he could. You see, the psychopath doesn’t need to have reasons, at least not like the rest of us. Psychopaths can exercise God-like powers over humans and that is gratifying enough. They can take a life or not, it is up to them. But why? To have God like powers is to be a deity—it is to be omnipotent. That is a powerful elixir for the psychopath and that is sometimes satisfactory enough. Maybe Stephen Paddock needed to exercise that power. We don’t know yet, but we should not ignore that possibility. The reality that there are predators like him among us, who think that way, should not come as a surprise.
You and I may not understand this need to be all powerful, but psychopaths do. Are all psychopaths then killers? No. But they are all indifferent toward others in their own way and in their own time. Is it possible that Stephen Paddock was what we call a high functioning psychopath? Quite possibly. But why so late in life as he had no criminal record? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. He may have committed crimes, he may have been abusive to others, we just don’t know about them because he was clever. Being clever does not absolve, it merely explains.
True, in most cases we see anti-social behavior early on but not always. There is no exact timeline where psychopathy, especially with high functioning psychopaths, will reveal itself. Look at the Bosnian leaders convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanities in the early nineties. Most were in their sixties before their psychopathic traits come out. Most of their lives, there they had no prior criminal activity until under the right conditions psychopathy revealed itself in murderous enmity toward their fellow human beings.
The reality is that it doesn’t take much to be a mass killer. Most people don’t think that way fortunately, even though we make it easy for them. We even have “shows” where all of the weapons Paddock purchased can be bought by just about by anyone, once more.
There are some people that will stick out before a tragedy because of what they say or do that gives them away. Then there will be those that are cunning, crafty, and skilled who will do things and not get noticed. Vigilance is always the price we pay to protect each other but it can fail us. Las Vegas has more hotel cameras than anywhere else in the known universe. Sometimes that is not enough. Perhaps it is helpful to educate ourselves, to recognize that we may never know a pure motive, that sometimes predators among us will act out if for no other reason than because they can.