Even though there are more than 1,000 leads in the Las Vegas shooting, authorities are struggling to figure out why Stephen Paddock shot at a crowd of more than 22,000 concertgoers on the Las Vegas strip.
In a press conference on Friday, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Undersheriff Kevin McMahill asked the public to avoid “constant rumor and speculation” as to what Paddock’s motives behind the shooting were.
“I get it,” McMahill said. “We all want answers.”
But as reports break every day and a new piece of information in the life of a domestic terrorist is uncovered, there has been intense focus on the “why” of it all. Does motive behind such a horrific crime even matter? Fifty-eight died, 500 more injured — perhaps that’s all that should matter when we heal as a nation.
Yet, according to experts as reported by CNN, it is important to dig into the motive of mass killings to prevent future attacks, adjust policy and the most important aspect, satisfy our human curiosity.
According to former senior FBI profiler, Mary Ellen O’Toole, understanding the motives behind a mass killer can actually help to stop future attacks.
“I like to think of these things as education,” she told CNN.
While the public is often confused in how mass shooters become radicalized, O’Toole says they actually don’t just “snap.” In fact, they are slowly radicalized to the point where “their brains begin to see other humans as objects,” and unfortunately, a “means to a desired end.”
In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people at the University of California, Santa Barbara and left behind a lengthy manifesto outlining plans to kill “beautiful girls” and “popular people” after years of rejection and jealousy. Rodger fatally stabbed three roommates before shooting two women outside a sorority house and a man inside a deli. He wounded 13 others in a shooting spree, then killed himself.
O’Toole says if we understand that “end goal,” we can understand how the process of their radicalization occurs, helping the public to understand who is at risk and prevent future attacks.
One of the most hot button issues in the week since the Las Vegas shooting has been about policy and legislative changes on a state and national level. While change is not always something the U.S. government embraces, 2015’s events led by mass shooter Dylann Roof helped change how we glorify the history of racism and slavery.
When Roof, motivated by white supremacist beliefs, killed nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, several states in the American South began to reconsider monuments and symbols of Confederacy. Subsequently, South Carolina passed legislation ordering the removal of the Confederate flag from state Capitol grounds.
“When something terrible happens, you want to know what were the factors that led up to it and whether there’s something about it that we could spot beforehand. Maybe we could head trouble off at the pass,” Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University said.
Other mass killings have also sparked policy change on a national scale, like the Columbine high school shootings in 1999, that had the country hone in on bullying as the underlying reasoning behind such violent behavior. Various states later passed anti-bullying laws in the years following.
But perhaps one of the biggest reasons we, as a society, want to know more has to do with “human nature” and what compels someone to just click.
Stone, who wrote the book The Anatomy of Evil, which explores the mindsets of some of the most prominent killers of our time, said there’s a “fascination” with such people like Paddock.
“It’s very hard to escape the fascination with these mass killers and mass murderers, and also the wish to have answers to what prompts some of these people to do these kinds of things,” Stone said.
For starters, most mass killers, almost all of whom are young men, are often motivated by some blend of paranoia, mental illness and social problems. While Paddock doesn’t exactly fit the profile since he was retired, had plenty of money and had a girlfriend, investigators aren’t really grasping what led to his radicalization.
“He doesn’t fit into the major categories,” Stone said. “Because Paddock doesn’t fit in, he’s all the more intriguing. So people are pounding on the table, ‘We have to figure this guy out.’”
With the shooting in Vegas bringing up some of the largest number of causalities the country has seen in modern history, not knowing is also leaving many families with a plethora of questions. If finding the motive won’t change anything in terms of impact, perhaps it will feed closure as to why this even happened.
As investigators continue to dig into Paddock’s background, O’Toole says she believes investigators should spend every effort of their to uncover his motivation.
“This was too horrible a crime, too extraordinary a crime to not to close the books [on],” O'Toole said. “[We are] obligated to the country, obligated to the citizens of Las Vegas, obligated to the families to understand why this happened.”
Sheriff Joe Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said that in the “spirit of safety” for the community and elsewhere in the United States, he doesn’t have a solid answer at the moment regarding motive, but reports he is “pretty confident we’ll get there.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Lombardo said he was “not at liberty to say” what information had been learned on behalf of the FBI and police department.