Why is motive so hard these days?
I was so astonished at the chorus of ignorance immediately following the Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest to date in America, I penned a blog. I had very little information to go on just two days after the slaughter, but in another sense, I had more than enough.
In the blog I pieced together a rough identity and provided a motive using a psychological technique known as thin-slicing. Almost six months later, I wrote a 522 page book, and with a lot more research, the first motive described in that blog hardly budged. There were a few nuances to it, especially based around Paddock’s experience of childhood, but otherwise the thin slice held up.
In the case of mass shooters, the massacre itself – the scale, the scope, the weapons, the entire theatricality of it, is a massive clue into what message the shooter is trying to send to the world. When the shooter meticulously plans his massacre, kills many people and then kills himself, his motive is obvious. The identity of the shooter in this case was also blindingly obvious, he was a gambler, he was wealthy, and he was the son of a bank robber. The final ingredient was that Paddock was a taciturn loner, with no close friends or family to speak of. That provided all the ingredients for mass murder right there, and yet no one seemed able to see it.
In a sense that’s good. If we could all see into the psychology immediately, that would mean it resonated with many of us [Paddock’s bitter loneliness], and that wouldn’t be good. But the fact that we can’t acknowledge Paddock’s motive is also bad, because it means society can’t see itself, or more pertinently elements of itself, and if we fail to recognize these symptoms, we’re doomed to suffer the same deadly consequences again. So best we do figure this out.
Amazingly, America cast about for days, then weeks, then months, in lieu of no suicide note, no definite link to ISIS, no browser history, unable to put Paddock’s psychology together. Why did Paddock kill so many people at random?
No one seemed to know. The part that I couldn’t believe was that with so many huge pieces of the puzzle on a silver platter, no one was putting them together. A child could put it together!
Four days after the Las Vegas shootings, as everyone bleated in unison about there being NO MOTIVE, I wrote another blog post. Despite having just as little [or as much information] as everyone else, there were already those chiding the public not to think about motive [and not to think at all]. Leave the thinking to the experts, they said. I encouraged folks to think for themselves. Most left the thinking to experts and the experts can up with exactly fuck all.
Three weeks later America still seemed in the dark about motive. I went to some trouble – not a lot – to deal with the fallacy of motive again. Six months later, the FBI, mainstream media’s so-called “senior reporters” and swathes of the American public still don’t know. CNN doesn’t know. It’s still officially a fucking mystery. Stephen Paddock’s brain didn’t show up a tumor or a fortune cookie with a small suicide scrawled there either, and so, no one could say why he committed mass murder.
A long-time editor, reading my thoughts on the topic, suggested I write a book entirely dedicated to profiling mass murderers, including Stephen Paddock. Thinking about the blog posts I’d already written, I imagined a quick-study, eight meaty chapters dedicated to 8 of the worst mass murderers in America, including Paddock, Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, James Holmes and the Tsarnaev brothers.
Instead, I was in way over my head. I ended up writing 140 000 words, over 522 pages. I wrote a bible on psychological profiling, and once again, a pattern emerged in the profiles.
In true crime, the crime scene tends to be a fairly prescribed space, and the premeditation phase tends to be fairly prescribed as well. Not so with mass shooters. They stew in their juices for months, and plot and scheme and weaponize for years. The cauldron of evidence one has to pick through is gargantuan. And yet when they commit mass murder, there is a sense of randomness about it. Really? You meticulously plan something, to the finest detail, and it happened by accident? Just happened to have a bad day…? Maybe just psycho – that’s the explanation?
Besides the enormous scale of each and every one of these profiles, as well as the huge scale of their crime scenes [the Tsarnaev brothers arguably had five separate crime scenes, and that’s besides their individual residences], many of these shooters leave behind exhaustive manifestos. Incredibly, even when they do leave their motives on paper, as Cho and the Columbine Killers did, society seems dismissive of them. The media disregards them. Books are written debunking the reasons given by the shooters themselves. The FBI writes reports which minimizes the reasons given by the shooters.
Those who don’t write manifestos leave bread crumbs, either in terms of browser histories [Paddock’s has since been made available] or online residues across social media. Ask yourself, if you were abducted by aliens, what sort of information would your browser history give about you, without you to speak for yourself? A pretty good idea, right?
The real mystery isn’t the motive of Stephen Paddock, it’s knowing what we know, and then coming up with the stupefying possibility that we don’t know what the motive is.