Senseless Killing and the Need to Know Why

Craving answers for a cold-blooded crime.

Posted Oct 04, 2017

On October 1, 2017, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, murdered 59 people at a country music festival, wounded over 500 others and shot himself. Why? 

He planned it. A seemingly ordinary guy with a comfortable life, no criminal record who called his brother to say, “How’s mom?” after Hurricane Irma. He sent her a walker. His father, whom he did not know, was a bank robber on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Stephen Paddock was an accountant and a high stakes gambler. His girlfriend, Marilou Danley, was traveling in the Philippines during what is now titled the biggest mass murder in modern history. She has flown back for questioning. Paddock wired $100,000 to the Philippines last month. One report says he doted on her and another says he berated her.

Who was this guy? Why did he do it? A few things went through my mind. They are not diagnoses, just ponderings. 

  • Did he have a brain tumor like the UT Austin Tower Shooter, Charles Whitman? I looked up how many mass murderers have brain tumors. Not a theme.
  • Could he have had an undiagnosed or poorly understood brain condition that led to unpredictable, violent behavior? An encephalopathy? An autoimmune disease?
  • Maybe he had intrusive violent thoughts and/or an impulse control issue? Intrusive thoughts can be part of a compulsive condition.
  • Might he have been hallucinating? Using substances? Was this a masked psychotic or paranoid disorder? Was he retaliating against an imagined enemy?
  • Was he a psychopath? The feelings of others did not register or matter? Was it exciting to see innocent people suffer?
  • Perhaps it was some kind of rush? A shooting orgy? A titillating build to a final thrill? 
  • What about a grievance, loss or a despair? Anger and a trigger that led to the plan?
  • Did he just detest happy people? The original plan was to murder those at the Life is Beautiful Festival the week before. My daughter was at that one.
  • Psychoanalytically speaking, was there a need to conjure the absent, powerful, demonic father and identify with him in some twisted way? Father hunger gone awry?
  • Did he possess the physiological make-up of a psychopath? Research below.

Why do we need to know why? There are many reasons, but here are a few.

  • Uncertainty creates anxiety
  • It might prevent future attacks
  • A world that runs on reason feels better to live in 
  • Enlightenment leads to better control

Can we find a why via physiology? Where do psychopathic tendencies come from?

The work of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Adrian Raine suggests that there is a physiologic basis for psychopathy. In this Atlantic Monthly article by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Raine discusses callous and unemotional children who evolve into psychopaths., Raine says that a low resting heart rate in children may be a predictor of future violence. Low heart rate can suggest a lack of fear. If one is not easily fazed, it may require intense stimulation to get a rise, create a feeling, race the heart or even feel alive. Criminal behaviors and violent acts feed the cravings of the “callous or unemotional” person in this way.

In the same article, Dr. Kent Kiehl, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico cites two abnormalities as an explanation for cruel and criminal acts. One is in the limbic system, the emotional processing area. Less gray matter and a small or underactive amygdala are a common finding. The second abnormality of is that of an overactive reward system. The brain of a psychopath, primed for drugs, sex, gambling, shooting, or cruelty drives him or her to commit unthinkable acts.

Paddock was a high-stakes gambler. Given the research, one wonders about his arousal from gambling and guns, his "sensation-seeking." We do not know his resting heart rate, or whether his gray matter or amygdala were diminished. We do know his father robbed banks and was a cavalier prisoner. What about heredity? Could his father, described as a “psychopath” by the FBI have passed down his tendencies?