A week after a wealthy retired accountant fitting no one’s profile of a terrorist (or deranged lunatic, disgruntled former employee, jilted lover, or angry loner) went on the bloodiest, single gunman shooting rampage in U.S. history, we are no closer to knowing why. A week is a long time not to know in this age of fast information. But as we desperately hunt for a motive, like a ticking bomb about to obliterate our collective sense of reason, it seems that defying understanding may have been Stephen Paddock’s studied purpose.
We know that far from snapping, Paddock planned his massacre with premeditated precision, weeks if not longer in advance. He explored other targets. He sent his girlfriend Marilou Danley off to the Philippines and wired her $100,000. He cached an arms depot’s worth of guns and ammunition, including at least one fully automatic assault rifle, in a high corner hotel room perfectly positioned to rain hellfire down on thousands of densely corralled victims below. He used a mallet to break two windows with two different vantages over his target, and he set up surveillance cameras to record himself and/or alert him to advancing police. When police finally came for him, he wasted almost no time in killing himself, as if he were just turning the page on a script he had already written.
Far beyond premeditated, Paddock’s plan for avoiding detection seems as deliberate as the carnage he left was indiscriminate. He had no known extremist political or religious views or affiliations. He didn’t rant over social media. He had no criminal history to speak of nor any major brushes with law enforcement. He is believed to have purchased his guns legally. He seemed friendly with people and not agitated leading up to the massacre. His family and neighbors are gobsmacked by his actions and can’t point to any warning signs in his past, except to remark that he was a bit reclusive and mildly yet unremarkably eccentric.
In short, Paddock is the epitome of the lone wolf assailant security experts warn us poses such a grave threat to public safety.
While a mass murderer’s ability to stay under the radar presents a scary conundrum for all of us, the fact that he is still eluding classification now is eerie and unusual. It strongly suggests Paddock toyed with the idea of being the ultimate lone wolf and remains a mystery by design.
The details are too ironic not to be significant. He listened to country music and attended shows like the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Music Festival he turned into a killing field. He was a gun enthusiast who mowed down many people who probably agreed with his views on the Second Amendment. It’s as if he set out to blur not clarify things, and to confound our notions of mass shootings.
To be sure, this isn’t the movies and he likely was propelled by more than one impulse. He was a high stakes gambler who must have relished the opportunity to outfox his opponents and been arrogant in his ability to do so. He pursued big prizes. Now he has rung the bell as the country’s most deadly shooter. Perhaps he sought to upstage his outlaw father, a fugitive bank robber. Maybe he was driven to some degree by a twisted whimsy. At different times, Paddock owned homes in both Mesquite, Texas and Mesquite, Nevada. And some of the former accountant’s behaviors seem to mimic aspects of the movie, The Accountant.
As much as we need to assign him a motive and make meaning out of his awful deeds, he may simply have seen to it that we can’t, leaving us to wrestle in the end with our own frustration. We can brand his brutality “pure evil,” as Trump did, but this does not help us to combat evil. We can extol examples of heroism as uniquely American (and accounts of incredible selflessness glisten in this tragedy), but these aren’t solely American virtues; people the world over react to danger in the same ways: by running toward it or away, sometimes stopping to render aid, sometimes trampling others in their escape.
Liberals can intone that now is the time to revisit sensible gun control, and it is. But military grade weapons abound in the country like greenhouse gasses fill the atmosphere and plastic particles pollute the seas. They will circulate for a long time to come. Background checks and waiting periods would not have thwarted Paddock. He was patient and plotting. He wasn’t a convicted felon or overtly mentally ill.
The NRA can spout that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and that an armed citizenry is the best protection against an armed menace. But Paddock could not have undermined such NRA rhetoric better if he tried to, and he may have tried to. No number of armed concertgoers beneath an invisible shooter with a machine gun could have blasted him out of his turret in the sky before he inflicted mass casualties. Sean Hannity tried to make the Rambo argument, and Trevor Noah tore it apart.
Paddock was found with 23 guns—more than he could possibly fire at his victims. He had to lug them all up to his room, along with suitcases full of ammo. If he was just a gun perv, he might have wanted to die worshipfully atop his arsenal. But his neighbors and family didn’t know him to be a gun nut. If that doesn’t explain it, he may have dressed the set for some other reason. It is at least conceivable he was trying, however dementedly, to make the opposite statement: that the NRA’s unrestrained interpretation of the Second Amendment is literally overkill.
Amid our bewilderment and uncertainty how to proceed, one thing is stark: This is only a pause during reloading.