Once again, a man came prepared to kill and to die. And once again we argue with each other about why it happened and what we can do to prevent the next horrible event. We even argue about whether we should talk about what can be done or whether we should mourn the deaths and debate the causes later.
I mourn for the families and friends of those who have died, but I also think we need to talk about causes and solutions. I’m sure we’ll learn more about the killer and there will be many analyses about why he did it, but some things are clear now.
- The killer was a man.
- The man was heavily armed with assault-type rifles.
- The man came prepared to die as well as to kill.
- The man had given up on life and lost the ability to care about others or care about himself.
The headlines are all too familiar:
- October 1, 2017– A gunman, identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, fires from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on a crowd of 30,000 gathered on the Las Vegas Strip for the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. At least 58 people were killed and more than 515 injured. Police believe the gunman killed himself.
- June 12, 2016 –Omar Saddiqui Mateen, 29, opens fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub, in Orlando. At least 49 people are killed and more than 50 are injured. Police shoot and kill Mateen during an operation to free hostages officials say he was holding at the club.
- April 16, 2007 –Student Seung-Hui Cho, 23, goes on a shooting spree, killing 32 people in two locations and wounding an undetermined number of others on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The shooter dies by suicide.
- December 14, 2012 –Adam Lanza, 20, guns down 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six adults, school staff and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, before turning the gun on himself. Investigating police later find Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, dead from a gunshot wound.
What all these mass killings have in common is that the perpetrator was a man, and most of the men were white males. On rare occasions women are involved in mass killings, but this is mostly a male phenomenon. Certainly, we have to recognize that guns are being used to kill so many people and we have to get serious about decreasing the number of rapid-fire weapons available to men, but the larger and more important question we need to ask is this:
Why are men so angry and depressed that they want to kill others and kill themselves, and why are so many of them white males?
If we want to uncover the real causes of mass murder, we have to focus our attention on men. We also need to go beyond our focus on the individual killer and whether he was mentally ill or not, and look at the larger pressures in society that impact men. These pressures impact women as well, but it is the men, with their love for guns and higher levels of aggression, where we need to put our attention.
I still remember an iconic scene from the movie Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It was about a fictional news anchor who was depressed because he was about to lose his job. In the scene the newsman played by actor Peter Finch tells his audience, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everyone knows things are bad. Everyone is out of work or scared of losing their job…The air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat…We know things are bad, worse than bad, they’re crazy…I want you to get mad…You’ve got to say, I’m a human being, God damn it…My life has value…I want all of you to get up now…I want you to go to the window, stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.’” You can watch a clip from the movie:
There are a lot of men out there who are out of work or afraid of losing their jobs, who are scared and don’t know what to do, who feel the world they know is slipping away, who think their lives don’t matter, and their environment is becoming toxic. In his anger and frustration, the fictional newsman asks people to go to their window and express their rage. Chills ran through me when I watched the clip of the movie and thought of Stephen Paddock at his window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
In order to understand the real causes of the Las Vegas killings and to prevent further tragedies we have to look at multiple time frames. In his recent book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, the biologist Robert Sapolsky says that in order to understand why we act in horrific or heroic ways we have to look at the precise moment the event occurs, then look further back in time at earlier, and more deep-seated, causes:
- An instant before the deaths.
Why did the people die? We have to say, as a result of being shot by high powered rifles. Restricting the sale of these weapons would have saved lives. Those who say that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” aren’t wrong. They are just looking at a different time frame.
- Weeks or months before the deaths.
What led up to the shooting. There is usually some precipitating event or events. These killings were planned in advance. This was not a “crazy” person who just snapped. Something happened that triggered his decision to buy the guns and decide when and where to use them. We need to understand the events that may have triggered his decision to kill and to die.
- Months or years before the deaths.
In order to kill others, you have to have a lot of rage built up based on some perceived wrong done to you. Sometimes it’s a lost job, a lost love, or some experiences where you felt shamed and disrespected. In order to want to die you have to be depressed, in despair, and feeling hopeless. We have to understand more about Mr. Paddock’s mind-set and what caused him to become so enraged and despairing.
- Decades before the deaths.
After many years of research conducted by CDC on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), we now know that childhood trauma can cause lasting impacts on a person’s physical and emotional health decades after the trauma occurred. People who have multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely to become depressed and suicidal or aggressive and homicidal. According to the CDC, “Adverse Childhood Experiences have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death.”
To understand why Stephen Paddock killed those people, we have to look at his childhood. This isn’t to absolve someone from being punished for their crimes, it’s to help us understand deaths so we can prevent them in the future.
One of the Adverse Childhood Experiences that is often overlooked is what I call “the father wound,” which results from being raised by an absent or abusive father. We’re beginning to learn about Mr. Paddock’s father who was a notorious bank robber and was on the FBI’s “dangerous and most wanted” list. We’ll want to know how his father wound impacted Mr. Paddock’s life.
- Even farther back.
We have to ask about the despair that’s been growing in the hearts and minds of men as we continue live out of balance with the natural world. Most of us recognize that we are overpopulating our planet, destroying the soil it takes to grow food, and poisoning our air and water. Many have given up on fixing things and are becoming depressed and suicidal. But many more have hope for a better future. The psychologist, Sam Keen, offers us a choice. He says:
“The radical vision of the future rests on the belief that the logic that determines either our survival or our destruction is simple:
- The new human vocation is to heal the Earth.
- We can only heal what we love.
- We can only love what we know
- We can only know what we touch.”
Stephen Paddock was a man who had given up on life. There were hundreds of others in Las Vegas who fought to save lives. I’m with them. I’m doing what I can to heal, love, know, and touch the earth and all life on earth, human and non-human.
Your comments are appreciated.
Originally posted on MenAlive.
Photo Credit: Getty Images