The mass slaughter at a country music festival in Las Vegas left record-breaking carnage but no clue as to the motive of the perpetrator. Stephen Paddock was wealthy and seemingly in a stable relationship with a well-liked woman. No criminal or mental health records raised red flags. He never expressed any strong political or religious views which commonly motivate mass killers and assassins. Paddock apparently even liked country music. Moreover, while he didn’t socialize with neighbors those who recall casual encounters with him found him unremarkable.
Of course, 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. 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 rationale, even if one he alone embraced.
In the absence of more definitive evidence regarding his motivation, his passion for high-stakes gambling might provide a clue. 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.” If he had become bored with that form of gambling he could have embraced the idea of being a participant-observer in the highest stakes game of all: gambling with life: others' and his. His apparent sense of superiority and limited interest in others also might have created a sense of entitlement and reflected a lack of empathy which facilitated his methodical killing spree.
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 like 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.
Paddock was not a hunter. The analogy between him and the fictional Zaroff is inapplicable in that regard. But, he was a high stakes gambler and when one has that mind-set what one is gambling on can be less important than the excitement of play itself. Some of world-class participants in the World Series of Poker, as depicted by A. Alvarez in his fascinating 1983 portrait of them, The Biggest Game in Town, would lose vast sums betting on things they knew nothing about or had no special skill in.
I can think of one other way of understanding Paddock’s heinous crime, though it is not incompatible with seeking a unique world-class gambler’s high. 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 upstanding 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.
Paddock, according to a prostitute he engaged in rape fantasy role-playing with, was fully aware he had evil proclivities and attributed them to “bad-blood” inherited from his father, a bank-robber once labeled a psychopath. Although we don’t know the factors that triggered that moment to engage in his monstrous behavior, or why he chose the target he did, Paddock may have finally decided, at 64, to let all those he knew and the rest of the world in on his secret knowledge. 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.