A sixtysomething millionaire murdered 58 people at a concert across the street from the Mandalay Bay this week. When Stephen Paddock partook in his sole act of mercy by killing his 59th person, the search for the perpetrator became a search for answers.
When we look for the reason in unreason we often look unreasonable. America now struggles to make sense of the senseless.
This says something more about the human condition than the condition of the particular human under the microscope. The curiosity that kills the cat serves as the raison d’être for many a one-lived biped.
Inquiring minds want know.
Our answers to questions jibe with us but not necessarily the facts. The Alt-Right imagines Stephen Paddock as an Antifa activist. Gun grabbers depict him as the face of the National Rifle Association. Don’t like Muslims? Paddock recently converted, really he did, and if you will not take my word on it then certainly those upright, forthright folks in ISIS can vouch for this claim.
Maybe one of the competing conspiracy theories turns out correct. What’s that saying about broken clocks? Our desire to know proves so all-consuming that we accept as certainty decidedly uncertain conclusions to satiate it.
Charles Whitman, a proto-Paddock of sorts, gave us a clear answer to what prompted him to ascend to the top of the University of Texas tower and shoot 48 people. The coroner found a tumor in the brain of the ex-Marine, who visited psychiatrists and received various prescriptions. It may sound too glib to judge that “the guy had something wrong with him” but that accurately sums up the situation.
“Crazy” works as a catchall explanation that satisfies 21st-century America. Evil leaves us with further questions because we increasingly don’t understand or, in some cases, even recognize evil. An ill-advised conservative pig-pile on CNN’s Chris Cuomo after he questioned Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s characterization of Paddock as a “madman” illustrates the point. Cuomo interrupted, “We don’t know that he was a madman. He could have just been really evil.”
This unsettles because we believe we can medicate the body but possess few cures for diseased souls. Perhaps Cuomo meant to be pedantic and argumentative. He nevertheless, intentionally or not, raised a serious point with serious implications by challenging a rote response. When we reflexively dismiss evil acts as the products of diseased minds rather than diseased souls, we brush evil under the rug. But evil does not stay under the rug however much we sweep.
This see-no-evil-speak-no-evil-hear-no-evil popular delusion couples with other fantasies to convolute the uncomplicated. When something big happens, big portions of the public expect a big idea behind the big crime. Usually small men nursing petty grievances lurk behind these big events. One thinks of Jacqueline Kennedy’s reaction to learning the identity of her husband’s murderer: “It had to be some silly little communist.”
This answer proved more unsatisfactory to those downplaying the evils of that ideology. So, the CIA, Texas Oil Men, Lyndon Johnson, the John Birch Society, the Mafia, and other real and imagined villains straight out of central casting became Kennedy’s killers in subsequent tellings. And more than fifty years after the fact, most Americans reject the obvious answer for most flattering or interesting ones.
As diverse a group of fallen figures as Lady Di, Bob Marley, Marilyn Monroe, and Yasser Arafat provoke alternative explanations for their demises. We cannot accept extraordinary figures dying under ordinary circumstances. The clear cut becomes complex and the complicated becomes simple for those searching for answers. We learn more about the observers than the subjects, and perhaps both parochial types believe the world revolves around them.
The motives of killers captivate. So, too, do the motives of conspiracy theorists.
But even the much-maligned conspiracy theorists embrace a healthy human habit, albeit in an unhealthy way. We want to know why. That three-letter word provokes more thought, uncovers more knowledge, and, alternatively, exiles more minds to rabbit holes than any term of any length in the English language.
To avoid this last fate, saying three vastly underrated words helps: “I don’t know.” Wonder serves curiosity better than certainty.
Mass murder in Las Vegas leaves people perplexed. Starting with questions and not answers always seems a good place to begin.