What savagery lies in the breast of man?
Two recent television epics ask us to contemplate this question. The first is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s magnificent documentary, “The Vietnam War.”
The other epic is the massacre in Las Vegas. A lone gunman used his hotel room as a sniper’s nest, ambushing 22,000 concertgoers. In about 10 minutes of automatic weapons fire, he killed at least 58 people and injured more than 500 others. And in a final act of cowardice, the murderer took his own life, leaving the survivors and us, the spectators, to ponder his mute brutality.
The massacre pushed everything else off the airwaves. It was the worst (for now) mass killing in modern U.S. history, and we all felt a part of it thanks to countless cellphone videos of the pandemonium that took place.
The problem with what is now becoming America’s seasonal ritual of human slaughter by terrorists and madmen is that we have transformed it into spectacle. The news anchors hurry out on private jets so they can be filmed standing outside of whatever architecture the killer chose as his prop. The obligatory stories tell of victims whose lives have been cut short and the heroes who made all the difference. Politicians wring their hands.
Journalistic sidebars list all the other recent mass killings, and we find ourselves surprised by what we had forgotten: Virginia Tech or the Aurora, Colorado, theater slaughter. The public square transformed into a killing field once again.
And the dead? The dead are so often our young. In a gay nightclub or a college campus, at a country music concert or a Colorado high school. Our killers slaughter our future, seeking to hurt us by hurting our most vulnerable.
Having watched hundreds of TV crime dramas, we expect some neat explanation at the end of the reel about why the killer did what he did: He was an Islamic terrorist, a right-wing paranoid, a schizophrenic hearing voices or a lonely psychopath.
We may soon learn what led Stephen Paddock to do what he did that terrible Sunday night in Las Vegas, but for now what we know of him seems so unspeakably ordinary.
Here was a man living the dream, or at least the dream as packaged and promoted relentlessly in our consumer culture. Paddock was apparently a millionaire, an accountant, a real estate investor, a high-rolling gambler that the casinos doted on. He was comfortably retired at 64. He collected guns. Gun shop owners said he passed their “smell test,” which of course raises questions about the test.
Yet as the layers are peeled back, the dream becomes darker: We glimpse a man with little in the way of human connections. An absent criminal father, distant relations with his brothers. Divorced twice. No children.
His was a rootless lifestyle. An ex-neighbor described his home decor as that of a college freshman: bare walls, a dining chair, a bed and two recliners. Another neighbor said “it was like living next to nothing.”
He had no strong religious or political beliefs, one brother said, as if that made the crime more mysterious because he wasn’t the sort of fanatic we’ve grown accustomed to.
St. John Paul II wrote: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him.”
A man untethered from family or God, a man whose value was the sum of what he bought and what he spent, is the most frightening being of all: a hollow man. And evil entered in.