Public Comment


Toni Mester
Friday October 06, 2017 - 03:09:00 PM

The FBI is having a hard time figuring out why Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of country music fans enjoying an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing at least 58 of his fellow human beings and wounding hundreds more. He was a seemingly sane healthy and wealthy white guy with an adoring girl friend, and he hadn’t converted to radical Islam. So what was his problem? Senator Dianne Feinstein wants us regular folks to weigh in on the problem of mass shootings, so here goes. Ms. America has her say. 

The main problem is that the guy was a psychopath, a quiet one until he acted out big time. Psychopaths do not have empathy for other human beings, but not all psychopaths are criminals, just like not all criminals are psychopaths. He was divorced twice, and his last girlfriend was afraid that he sent her on a trip because he wanted to break up. That sounds like she was insecure, maybe feeling like he didn’t love her. He didn’t because he was incapable. 

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not qualified to parse the symptoms of his disease, but the fact that he gambled in a rigid calculating manner on video poker machines certainly speaks to his inabilities in relating with other people. I haven’t played cards in a long time, but when I was a teenager, we neighborhood kids played strip poker in the attic of our garage, a high stakes game with a lot of personal interaction. Poker is an up-close and personal game in which the players try to outfox each other, the source of many idioms including “poker face.” The traditional dramatic scene of the smoke-filled back-room poker game with its aura of threat among hardened men is intense and intimate, a staple of the crime, cops, and cowboy movies. 

On the stage, The SeaFarer by Conor McPherson ends with a haunting scene of poker, but my all time favorite is Dealer’s Choice by Patrick Marber, a riveting dissection of gambling addiction among a father, son and their friends. Removing the personal from poker and making the game mechanical epitomizes the anomie, isolation, and alienation of video gaming, our new national pastime. According to news stories, Paddock would spend hours playing $100 a hand video poker in Las Vegas casinos and was such a regular that he earned “comps” including the suite of rooms in the Mandalay Bay that served as his shooting perch. The fact that he shot people from long range, over 400 yards, also speaks to his psychological removal from the victims. 

His father Benjamin Paddock was a psychopath and a career criminal, a bank robber who was once on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Many recent studies have found a genetic link to criminal behavior, and even though his father was the ultimate deadbeat dad, totally absent from his children, the “like father, like son” adage holds true, teaching by example. The effects of an absentee father can be devastating on a child including failure, crime, and disease; not all grow up to be President. Almost one in three American children live in a fatherless household, a crisis that has engendered many organizations with a mission to support engaged fathers. 

Stephen Paddock is beginning to look like an all-American boy. He might have been influenced by sibling rivalries among his three brothers and feelings of inadequacy. He had allergies that prompted him to leave the humidity of Orlando, Florida and move to the Nevada desert, where he could also indulge his gambling habit. One of his brothers and his mother live in Orlando, the site of the former worst mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in June 2016, when 49 people were massacred. It is possible that Paddock was motivated by a desire to go down in history as the worst badass ever, upstaging Omar Mateen and certainly surpassing his father in evil, who in contrast was just a petty thief. 

According to his brother Eric, Stephen has no religious or political affiliation. He wasn’t studying anything except gambling. As far as we know, the man had no core beliefs. He didn’t worship in a congregation or engage in strategic actions for any social cause. He didn’t go to classes to learn a foreign language or woodworking. He had mathematical abilities that helped him earn a living and then to buy and sell real estate. The note that he left contained numbers, not a suicide note or manifesto. He wasn’t involved in the community; except for his girlfriend, he was a loner. According to the latest reports, he had been pursuing the goal of shooting up a music festival, and evidently had surveilled other venues before deciding on the Route 91 Harvest Festival of country music. He hated other people having fun. 

He had been drinking, and alcohol is a depressant. His drinking habits have not yet come to light, but many high functioning alcoholics successfully hide their addiction. About 8% of adult men in this country have alcohol use disorder, and very few of them are under treatment. AUD is described as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” A recent study puts the number of alcoholics higher at 12% of the population or 1 in 8. In 2011, after slipping and falling in a casino, Paddock sued for damages, but the case was dismissed. He claimed that the fall aggravated his high blood pressure, a common symptom of alcoholism. 

And finally, there’s the gun story, the focus of many interviews and articles, even though we’re never supposed to talk about guns. Where did he get all those guns and why did he keep them, if not to be used? One of my old friends has turned to the right and owns 13 guns, so he says. Why do you need 13 guns, I asked. It seems they are a symbol of strength and independence. This is totally whacko. We both grew up in the country and the fall hunting season. Guys go out with their pals and rifles to hunt deer that inevitably end up roped to the truck and then strung up between trees, skinned and cut up as venison for the freezer. My uncles and cousins who owned egg farms used their rifles to hunt rats and chicken predators. A gun is a tool, not a symbol. As a weapon, a gun is best used in civilian society for policing and self-defense. Stephen Paddock wasn’t threatened by anybody and didn’t need his weapons of war for self-defense. According to reports, he was an avid defender of gun rights, although it’s doubtful that the NRA is going to make him a poster boy for the second amendment. Like all tools, guns are meant to be used, mostly for sport and target practice. In allowing weapons of war in civilian society, legislators have created the inevitability of mass murder. In 2017 there have been 521 mass shootings, and that figure is so last week. The gunroom originated on ships and on the country estate, usually near the backdoor or within the owner’s inner sanctum, where the hunting rifles were stored. Stephen Paddock kept his arsenal in a bedroom of his suburban ranch house in a protected retirement community. It would be ludicrous if the outcome weren’t so horrific. 

None of these factors alone make a mass murderer: psychopathology, gambling addiction, and a fatherless childhood; family dynamics that might have placed him at a disadvantage among his siblings, competitiveness, lack of core beliefs, alcoholism, and the availability of weapons of mass destruction. But together, they were a lethal mix. This is an all-American tragedy. We have met the enemy, and he is us. There may be a rational explanation, but no motive. Sorry. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley