America's Plea: If He's Not a Terrorist or Poor, Paddock Better Damn Well be Mentally Ill

The F.B.I., Las Vegas Police and journalists are all scrambling to find a motivation which sent Stephen Paddock on a killing spree, leaving 59 dead and over 500 wounded. The search for an answer to why he did it is so dire that billboards have been set up around Las Vegas, reading "If you know something, say something." The message is clear: it is simply impossible that Stephen Paddock was sane and without any particular motivation. The agent in charge of the Las Vegas F.B.I. office went so far as to say "we will not stop, until we have the truth"

For philosophers, such statements pertaining to the possible existence of immutable truth hammers at the core of our discipline. Here we have a representative of a state institution proclaiming that there is an indisputable truth about Paddock out there somewhere in the universe to be discovered; if we just work hard enough and piece together all of the clues, we will find it.

Leaving post-modernist attacks on truth and rationality (which could lead us to conclude that truth does not exist at all, or if it does, it is completely relative) aside for the moment, we must at the very least ask: what about the narrative construction of truth? How about the confirmation bias (the search and process of interpreting information that confirms the position or beliefs you already hold)?

Richard K. Sherwin, Professor of Law at the New York Law School, gives an account of how the Western legal and philosophical traditions have historically suppressed human storytelling -- and all that comes along with it: myth, emotion, impressions of experience, etc. -- in their quests for objectivity, neutrality and the truth (as they tend to favour "the abstract and the universal over the particular and the contextual"). He reminds us that various elements of legal stories, which appeal to our preconceptions, dispositions and beliefs, inform and construct different legal realities. In line with this, I am suggesting that we are in the middle of witnessing the active composition of a certain story about the true identity of the Las Vegas killer, and that this process is not neutral. By proclaiming the truth about Paddock is out there and we will have it, the F.B.I. not only affirms a sort of 'positivism' (confidence that through reason we will find and interpret concrete facts and achieve sound knowledge about Paddock and his motive), but also that mundane descriptions of the life of a high roller who gambled heavily on video poker and obtained his weapons legally are just not going to cut it.

In a state obsessed with the war on terror and whose President is overtly anti-Islam, it is arguable that American authorities would like nothing more than for Paddock to be a Muslim terrorist. Previous beliefs would be confirmed, the case would be closed, and further action would not necessary. But if Paddock was not a terrorist, America pleas, please make him poor. If he were poor, he might have had financial motives for the attack or have been acting out of revenge; the story would be that Paddock was driven to commit one final act of hatred towards a primarily bourgeois, young crowd before offing himself in order to escape hundreds of thousands of dollars of gambling debt. But no, Paddock was wealthy.

So if he was not a terrorist or poor, we better damn well construct a story about the white, affluent Paddock that would relegate him to a different marginalized segment of the population -- the mentally ill. This would assure he remains far away from 'American normalcy' all while keeping our fears of the unknown at bay. It would calm the insecurity of a shocked population that above all cannot uphold the possibility that Stephen Paddock would be somehow similar to them, or that his actions were unpredictable.

And indeed, Paddock's girlfriend Marilou Danley, originally oblivious of the attack and of no apparent use to investigators, may now be able to offer clues that could confirm what investigators seem to be begging for: that Stephen Paddock had a mental illness. And federal agents have been ostensibly clear that they are interviewing Paddock's family and friends explicitly "looking for signs of mental illness." One hint in this regard could be that his father was "diagnosed as a psychopath." In short, the F.B.I. wants to spin a story in which Paddock is mentally ill, and they are likely to be able to construct it.

Interestingly, the process of constructing Paddock's psychological story seems to first require dehumanizing him into an asocial "Numbers Guy" -- the cold, calculating, solitary gambler who waged high and gambled primarily on video poker (as opposed to a more social form of gambling), all of which culminated in a "solitary pursuit that exercised his calculating mind." Testaments from his fellow gamblers confirming that he was creepy and frequently made people uncomfortable by staring at them are also instrumental in this story. Referring back to Sherwin's analysis of the narrative construction of realities (Sherwin provides concrete examples of homicide cases), we should be reminded that the inclusion of such anecdotal reports on Paddock's behaviour in accounts of who he was is not without biases and direction towards certain goals.

The central tenant of our impression of personality disorders, particularly psychopathy, in relation to homicide seems to be that psychopathic killers have no emotion or empathy, and this mental state represents the condition of the possibility of the person committing murder. While this may be widely presented in the media to feed our general obsession with murder cases, it seems we have forgotten about a body of existential literature exploring the human psychology of killers and gamblers -- particularly exemplified by the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky often portrays the unemotional, calculative side of characters, but always with a foil or a second, opposing side that can never be reduced to mathematical reasoning or carefully evaluated self-interest. The most known example is perhaps Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, who premeditates the murder of his landlady, yet also displays charity, humility, and a genuine concern for others (which he often ends up once again renouncing or regretting). Dostoevsky's characters frequently contradict themselves -- the will to act differently and irrational impetuses towards new decisions can enter in at any moment. This is part of what makes reading Dostoevsky so thrilling. His "Underground Man" (from Notes from Underground) is similarly isolated and spiteful, yet cannot stably contain and control his emotions, weaknesses and his desire to be good, although he continues to act deplorably.

Dostoevsky's characters remind us that our simplistic accounts of personality disorders in the face of incomprehensible crises are just that -- simplistic. His writing performatively suggests that narrations of the lives and actions of morally disgraceful people tend to intentionally eclipse the humane and contradictory dimensions of who they are, in which we might see some of ourselves.

Dostoevsky can thereby be read as flipping the cool, calculated, self-interested dimension of the psychopath on its head. For even if the psychopath and his actions can be characterized this way, an asocial, calculating personality does explain the irrational will of the murderer to plunge into the act of premeditated murder itself. Perhaps the impetus is something much more existential and arguably familiar: the will to do something radical to validate the importance of ones own existence before one dies.

But such an account is just one story of motivation among thousands of others.