The Unknown Reason for the Vegas Shooting

Like everybody else, I’ve been trying to make sense of the Las Vegas shooting, in which a 64-year-old guy named Stephen Paddock apparently opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 country music festival attendees from his 32nd-floor room in the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 59 people and injuring hundreds more.

One of the confusing things about this horrible incident is that from what we know about him so far, Paddock doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would do something like this. He went through a lot of trouble to kill as many people as he did, so you’d think he must have done something else on a smaller scale first to think this would be worth the effort, and yet according to reports he had no criminal record, no extremist political views, no trouble with his neighbors, and no obvious prior signs of mental illness. That’s strange because you don’t go from being a normal person to being a mass murderer overnight without a period of transition. The idea that people “just snap” is more myth than reality. It takes time to become the kind of person who would commit this kind of atrocity. So why weren’t there any signs?

I suppose one possible explanation is that Stephen Paddock was not the shooter: The real shooter lured him (and his guns) to the hotel, shot him, and then opened fire on the crowd, escaping before the police arrived to find a “convenient” murder-suicide scenario. I don’t actually believe this is what happened. It’s a movie plot, not real life, and unless the perpetrator is a Moriarty-level criminal mastermind, it would also leave a ton of evidence that would be easy for the police to discover. It’s even less likely than just snapping.

(Also, recent reporting about the incident rules it out.)

Another possibility is that Paddock had a brain tumor that caused a sudden, violent change of behavior. No doubt this crossed my mind because I’m familiar with the case of Charles Whitman, who similarly shot at a crowd from a high perch, at the University of Texas (Austin) in 1966, and was discovered at autopsy to have a brain tumor which some neurologists have speculated may have contributed to his behavior. Paddock’s behavior could also be explained by some other form of brain damage, perhaps from a stroke or a traumatic head injury or some other cause.

The truth is, the most likely explanation for the conflict between Paddock’s normal life and its violent end is probably much more prosaic. It’s most likely the same explanation as for every other murderer who is described by acquaintances as “quiet”: We’ve only heard from people who didn’t know him very well.

When something like this happens, it’s easy for the press to find the killer’s neighbors and colleagues, but few of them are likely to know anything relevant. As with most of us, a lot of people may have known him, but few people knew him really well. The media, and maybe the police, just haven’t found people who know, if they even exist.

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