The massacre that occurred a short time ago in Las Vegas has everyone there as well as in the rest of the United States scared and bewildered. Scared, because now that such an unusually enormous rampaging act has been carried out successfully, Americans are worried that it could happen again. Bewildered, because there seems to be no obvious motive for the gunman Stephen Paddock to have perpetrated such an act. He was not a member of a right-wing extremist group or an Islamic terrorist group. For the most part, he had an ordinary kind of life. He had held several jobs with government agencies and had become a successful investor with real estate. He had been married and divorced twice and had no known children. One unusual thing in his life history is that his father had been a bank robber. But many people have criminals in their families and don’t commit mass murders. When you’re a bank robber, you’re trying to get a lot of money to enrich yourself. What is the rational reason for trying to kill a lot of people with whom you have no connection?
The purpose of this article is not to find the one cause that explains everything around the massacre event. But it will attempt to give a very important cause that is normally not focused on in situations of this nature. It is the same cause that has been suggested in this column as the foundation for the heroin epidemic. It is also the same cause that has been given for the popularity of Donald Trump among such a large group of the American people. I am talking about the sensory distortion found in today’s vacuum and tension-pocket living environments. As has been discussed, people get burnt out and jaded from the tension-pocket patches of the environment, which are filled with overstimulation. But it’s the experiential vacuum, the large swath of the environment that is understimulating - all the frictionless experiences, all the mediated experiences - that particularly is going to concern us here. It is all this frictionless and mediated experience that prevents people from getting the traction they need to live meaningful life narratives: from being able to have rich vibrant life experiences, from being able to make, receive and preserve organic imprints, and from being able to properly prepare for death by creating a surrogate immortality.
So how does one deal with this sensory distortion? There are several ways. One way is to try and fight the numbness through the abrasive friction, the kicks, that can be found in a drug like heroin. Which is why there is such an epidemic of heroin use among ordinary people today. Another way is to immerse oneself in the abrasive kicks generated by Trump’s aggressive attacks on others and by his unpredictable changes of policy. What to a more liberal rational person would seem to be totally inappropriate behavior on the part of a president is something loved and encouraged by a large group of very numb Americans. Trump provides these people with a vicarious abrasive life narrative. They elected Trump to shake things up in Washington, to explode Washington apart. And we are all transfixed by his controversial tweets and unpredictable actions that, whether we like it or not, shake us all up on a daily basis. But it’s his supporters who vicariously participate in the imprints created by his actions, and who, in so doing, are able to intermittently pull themselves out of the numbness they experience from their own private experiential vacuums.
And yet there are people who don’t use drugs or Donald Trump to get the abrasive friction they need to pull themselves out of their numbness. They don’t fight off numbness through internal experiences like drugs. They don’t do it through vicarious experiences like identifying with Donald Trump. Instead, they do it with their own directed active experiences in the external world. More precisely, they leave abrasive big bang imprints in the external world through actions that will be remembered by people for a long time. These are people who upon examination seem to be living very ordinary unexceptional lives. And, of course, this may be exactly where the problem lies.
Now there is one pattern of behavior in Stephen Paddock that, independent of the massacre, does demonstrate a desire to have a direct explosive impact on his external environment. I am talking about his predilection to gamble with large sums of money. In the period before the mass murder, Paddock was betting up to $10,000 a day. This represents not only a desire to make money in unconventional ways, but a desire to beat the odds of the casinos. To leave a big memorable imprint by taking big risks, but reaping big rewards at the expense of the casinos. Okay, perhaps there is a connection between the father’s desire to “beat the system” by robbing banks and Stephen Paddock’s desire to “beat the system” by winning big at the casinos.
But this still does not explain the massacre of innocent people. Robbing banks is what could be called a more conventional illegal action, while gambling large sums of money on a regular basis can be called a conventional legal addiction. And yet from a certain perspective, perhaps there is a connection between these more conventional activities and the massacre. A massacre can be thought of as simply an exponentially greater action to leave big imprints on the experiential surface of society. Rather than breaking the bank by winning large sums, it’s tearing the fabric of society apart through mass murder. And it is perhaps here that the deeper motivation lies in many of Stephen Paddock’s actions. He experienced an unusually deep numbness from the experiential vacuum that surrounded him. The only way that he could pull himself out of this numbness, which was like a living death for him, was to generate intense abrasive disruptive actions which could blow society apart. The numbness led to a profound sense of impotence. He couldn’t get traction in the frictionlessness, the excessive mediation that he experienced in daily life. And unlike most of us who live in modern technological society and experience some of this numbness, he was particularly sensitive to it. He needed the tension pocket kicks of big explosive actions in order to feel alive. Really big explosive actions.
Some criticisms of this theory could be that it is too speculative and that it doesn’t deal with specific clues that may be present, clues that can lead to the specific thoughts that he was thinking that, in turn, can lead us to his specific motives. The lack of specific motives present is driving law enforcement and the news media crazy. They want to find specific motives, so that they can magically get some kind of control over the situation. If they understood the specific motives, perhaps it will be able to lead society to be able to prevent such horrific massacres in the future.
But what if specific motives can never be discovered. Like all social philosophy, there is a speculative component to the ideas presented here. And the cause herein presented will appear too nebulous and inchoate to some. Furthermore, there aren’t any immediate solutions offered. Certainly, we need to find ways to have people engage in primary experience as much as possible on a daily basis. Direct engagement with the world. And to have them try and avoid the sensory distortion, as much as possible, created by modern consumer technology. We as a society need to start encouraging forms of experience that don’t understimulate and, in contrast, that don’t overstimulate through abrasive kicks.
The believers in Donald Trump are also people suffering from profound numbness and impotence and people who like the abrasive friction he provides through his aggressive tweets and his flip-flops in policy in order that they can feel alive. The same numbness and impotence can be found among today’s heroin addicts. If we can start seeing the connection between all these different pathological behavioral expressions in modern technological society, perhaps it will lead us to develop some long-term systems changes such that these expressions considered here as well as others are diminished in the frequency of their manifestation.
As for Stephen Paddock, I don’t have a clue as to the specific cause, what in this case Aristotle would have called the efficient cause, that provoked him to massacre the people at the music festival. The point made here is that Paddock’s profound numbness, as manifested in his gambling addiction, was like a tripwire, something that predisposed him to exaggerated reactions when something impacted his mind. He could use the irritation as a challenge not only to get rid of the irritation, but also to temporarily pull out of his numbness. A little irritation can be a springboard to an explosive reaction in people with his mental state. If we want to diminish this kind of mass murder, we have to find a way to lead people in modern technological society out of this profound numbness. Which means creating living environments that are more filled with organic fields of stimulation where people can have rich vibrant experiences, can make, receive, and preserve meaningful organic imprints, can live meaningful life narratives and prepare for death with meaningful surrogate immortalities. Then there would be fewer zombie-like people, such as Stephen Paddock.
Sensory distortion, and in particular the experiential vacuum, is the ground cause, what Aristotle in this case would have called the material cause, that is predisposing a lot of people to overreact in a lot of different destructive ways. The focused figure cause, the efficient cause, can be something relatively insignificant in proportion to the destructiveness of the response. This is why it is very likely we will never discover what specifically caused Stephen Paddock to plan his horrific mass murder. But it doesn’t matter. What we have to focus on is those aspects of our living environment over which we have some control. The frictionless mediated screen realities that we all increasingly live in are creating a lot of people who become predisposed to explosive reactions to temporarily pull themselves out of their numbness. People who are more numb than most and therefore more desperate to find their own big bangs to lift themselves out of their living deaths. It is hard to identify these people in advance. So for all of us, we have to find ways to bring people away from screen reality (and increasingly virtual reality) and bring them back into a life that is lived more in external world reality. Both in the short run and in the long run, we are all really a part of the solution.
(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow
(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow