LAS VEGAS — We need to know.
Two weeks after Stephen Paddock rained down bullets on attendees of a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring more than 500, investigators are no closer to understanding the gunman’s motives.
For a nation riveted by the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history, this is a deeply unsettling problem.
Police detectives and criminal profilers are working overtime to dissect Paddock’s behavior, circumstances and psychological state in the lead-up to the shootings. Mental health professionals and experts on human behavior, meanwhile, are bearing witness to a more common and less mysterious response on the part of Americans: a sense that without an explanation for Paddock’s actions, we cannot psychologically close the chapter on this shooting.
“The lack of explanation here is bothering us on an almost existential level,” said psychologist Yuval Neria, an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder at Columbia University in New York. It’s an anguish Neria says he has heard in his lab and in his clinical practice from people who have followed the unfolding horrors from afar and from those with direct ties to the shooting.
“It is an unconscious and profound human trait to seek a motive for catastrophic violence. It is a means of self-defense,” said Jeff Victoroff, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Southern California and an expert in trauma, terrorism and human aggression. “People need to make contingency plans, to protect themselves, by assigning a motive, recognizing people with that motive, and staying away from them.”
As parents, we do this almost effortlessly to calm an anxious child. We put the threat at a distance. We cast the perpetrator as “other,” someone we could not possibly know. We promise our protection.
Now, parents and other adults have seen for themselves that concertgoers can be mowed down from 32 stories up. They may be forced to accept that an amiable if distant neighbor – a seemingly successful man with no known history of mental instability – can inexplicably kill people against whom he bears no apparent grudge.
“It’s unbearable,” Victoroff said. Without actionable answers that make Paddock a rare and distant monster, he said, “you are paralyzed.”