Along with much of the rest of the country, I’ve been semi-obsessed with Stephen Paddock, the guy who recently holed up at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas for several days building an armory, then broke a couple of windows and started spraying bullets on a crowd of 22,000. He killed 58 people, injured almost 500, then shot himself in the head—leaving no paper trail, no social media footprint, no manifesto. Cops found jottings in his room calculating the trajectory and distance of the bullets to the concertgoers below. Apparently, as with the video poker machines in front of which he spent 14 to 16 hours a day, to the end he was trying to maximize his odds of “success.”
Some reports say he drank heavily. But whether or not he was an alcoholic, he was clearly a gambling addict. He padded about the casinos in a sweatsuit and his favorite pair of flip-flops, ordering around waitresses and leaving crappy tips, as if the high-stakes video poker den were his own private domain—really, his home.
“I don’t sun,” he observed in a 2013 deposition for a lawsuit in which he had sued one of the casino hotels after he slipped in a hall on his way to gamble yet some more. In lieu of landscaping his tract house in Mesquite, Nevada, he built a fence so the neighbors couldn’t see through and installed a safe in the garage.
Freedom? Or Isolation?
In our culture this kind of pathological isolation presents as normal, nobody else’s business, an entirely justified exercise of the “freedom” we Americans hold so dear. So does buying and stockpiling a personal arsenal of semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles, ammunition and accessories of which the sole, uncontroverted purpose is to slaughter other human beings.
The crowd upon whom Paddock randomly fired comprised a spectrum of races, demographics, ages, faiths. Their crime seemed simply to be that they were human. They existed. They breathed. They were listening to music, connecting with each other, celebrating. How loathsome that must have seemed to a man who spent almost every waking hour feeding money into a machine that was gamed to beat him, thinking he was winning because he came out ahead every once in a while, and the casinos comped him rooms and threw him free sushi, the way an organ grinder might throw peanuts to a performing monkey who brought in lots of change.
A life spent in A/C. Noise. Artificial light.
Human beings aren’t meant to live so completely divorced from natural beauty, each other, reality. I wonder if there is not a tipping point in the human soul where the effects of isolation reach such monstrous proportions that the person simply implodes. The violence the isolator imposes on him- or herself at last has nowhere else to go and so gathers itself into an unstoppable cunning, baffling, powerful urge to destroy everyone else as well.
At Mass one recent morning, the priest observed that we don’t speak much of Satan in today’s culture but that he is alive and well. As much of a mess as the world is in, as fallen as we humans are, the priest continued, alone even we couldn’t have contrived to cause so much devastation, destruction, and suffering.
I think he was on to something. I’ve always theorized, mostly from observing the workings of my own conscience, that violence has a hideous malevolent “intelligence” that is cunning, baffling, and capable of an infinite variety of disguises. Evil seems to be personal, just as love is; seems to seek not just general ruin but the ruin of the individual soul.
Violence has a virus-like, berserk quality. Violence goes underground, festers, re-groups, and turns up continents away and years later. Violence turns back upon itself.
As followers of Christ, we’re called to order our lives outward, not claustrophobically inward. We’re called to insist upon beauty. We’re called to share what is “rightfully” ours not to hoard it.
The Misfit in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is a sociopath and serial murderer. He’s also a philosopher. He’s got his finger on the pulse of original sin. He’s already murdered the rest of a not-very-bright but mostly innocent vacationing family. Just before shooting the grandmother he correctly states every human being’s existential choice. We’re either all in or we’re not in at all. We either cast our lot with Christ or we do some “meanness”:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can-by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness”…
“Stay awake!” Christ says.
He doesn’t mean to stay awake in paranoia to spy and suspect, to amass an armory against our neighbors, to perch like a vulture on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
He means stay awake to the paradoxes of reality. He means stay awake to hatred and meanness in our own hearts, because we are all very much in need of mercy.
He means stay awake to opportunities to admire and to help each other out.
Servant of God Madeleine Delbrêl once wrote:
“The eyes of peacemakers are watchful, caring eyes and their fellow wayfarers find warmth in them like people at the fireside. They never find a motive for fighting because they know that they are only accountable for peace and peace is not preserved by battles.
They know that dividing a single atom can unleash cosmic warfare.
They also know that there is a chain that links human beings together and that when one human cell is torn by anger, jealousy, or bitterness, the reaction of war can rebound to the end of the universe.”