By BENJAMIN PRATT
and JAMES TRUXELL
for ReadTheSpirit magazine
How can we respond to the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, when the gunman’s dark motives remain such a mystery? There was no war cry from Stephen Paddock. No manifesto awaiting publication. No suicide video. No affiliation with an infamous group.
The shooter’s description by his younger brother gives us one clue. Eric Paddock describes his brother, Stephen, as a “no-ties, no-attached kind of guy, a no-help-from-someone-else kind of guy, a standalone guy.” Eric says that Stephen committed the Las Vegas atrocity “100 percent by himself.” Stephen had “no church, no political affiliations.”
Every day since the rampage, newspaper headlines have tried to plumb the depths of this mystery. We want to know the killer’s motivation. What spawned his maniacal action? Not being able to wrap our minds around Paddock’s evil motivation leaves us feeling vulnerable. The Washington Post wrapped up its reporting this past weekend with this headline: Las Vegas gunman left behind trail of carnage and clues but no ‘clear motive or reason why.’
The New York Times team came to the same vague conclusion: “The mystery of who he was has only seemed to deepen.”
Perhaps that’s true. But some passages in the Times story remind us of an earlier, infamous character from popular culture. First, consider these excerpts from the Times team about Stephen Paddock:
- “From an early age, he focused on gaining complete control over his life and not having to rely on anyone. He cycled through a series of jobs he thought would make him rich.” And, eventually, he did become wealthy through investments in real estate.
- “Some who met him described him as arrogant, with a strong sense of superiority. People in his life bent to his will, even his mother and brother. He went out of his way for no one.”
- “Mr. Paddock cherished his solitude. … In 2003, he got his pilot’s license, eventually taking the extra step to get an instrument rating so that he could legally fly in cloudy conditions with limited visibility. … The message was clear: Mr. Paddock was a man who did not want to be seen.”
- “His methodical and systematic mind had turned in a lethal and unpredictable new direction.”
WE’VE MET THIS KIND BEFORE
Nearly 60 years ago, Doctor No stepped onto the world stage as one of author Ian Fleming’s most notable villains in the James Bond series of novels that later were turned into blockbuster movies. There are striking resemblances between Stephen Paddock and Doctor No. Like Fleming’s evil genius—who chose the name “No” as a rebuke to life itself—Paddock ultimately responded to life with a deafening: No!
Stephen Paddock clearly was a Doctor No kind of guy. In spite of being a gambling man, Paddock didn’t want to live with the vulnerable gamble of being a full, connected human being. Like Doctor No, Paddock chose to live with the illusion of power, the illusion of invulnerability.
Evil is a mystery. As with any real mystery, the more we know, the deeper grows the mystery. Doctor No personified the evil of supreme indifference and mania for power. Nearly every enemy of James Bond, at some point, captured Bond and made a personal confession to him. Doctor No’s is the longest confession of any of the evil legion in Fleming’s series of novels.
Here are just a few of the lines from this evil figure, described by Fleming as having a face with “no anger in it … nothing but a supreme indifference.”
- In the novel, Doctor No argues, “All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the artists, the philosophers, the religious leaders—all maniacs. … I am as you correctly say, a maniac—a maniac, Mister Bond, with a mania for power.”
- Doctor No also says, “Power is sovereignty.”
- And he explains, “I changed my name to Julius No—the Julius after my father and the No for my rejection of him and of all authority.”
- Doctor No concludes, “I had to learn what my tools were before I put them to use on my next goal—total security from physical weaknesses, from material dangers and from the hazards of living. Then, Mister Bond, from that secure base, armored even against the casual slings and arrows of the world, I would proceed to the achievement of power—the power, Mister Bond, to do unto others what had been done unto me, the power of life and death, the power to decide, to judge, the power of absolute independence from outside authority.”
A TIMELESS SPIRITUAL CONFRONTATION
In the novel, James Bond rebuts Dr. No’s claim that his wealth and weaponry and indifference to killing make him a powerful man. Bond says, “That is only the illusion of power, Doctor No. Any man with a loaded revolver has the power of life and death over his neighbor. Other people beside you have murdered in secret and got away with it. In the end they generally get their deserts. A greater power than they possess is exerted upon them by the community.”
Ahh! Therein lies the spiritual truth that, as we write this reflection, we hope you may share with others: Yes, this kind of evil is a mystery! Yes, this kind of deadly destructive power is unfathomable! Yet, there is another powerful mystery that can stir among us: Love. Compassion. Community.
As you watched the news reports from Las Vegas, weren’t you equally mystified by the courage and sacrifice of people who responded in the face of such carnage and peril? Some people responded by risking their own lives to shield the bodies of both loved ones—and complete strangers. Astonishing courage! Others picked up bleeding bodies and ran toward hoped-for help, exposing and risking their own lives as they darted among the bullets. First responders moved toward danger, not away from it. Such love and self-less compassion are mysteries!
In Ben Pratt’s book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, Pratt writes extensively about Doctor No’s denial of life itself—his supreme indifference. Pratt says that a core struggle in defeating such evil lies in overcoming the sin that traditional Christianity calls “accidie.” At one point in the book, Pratt writes:
“With a loss of faith in God, we make ourselves our own god and claim our own power. Therefore, accidie is the root of cruelty, malice, snobbery, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and avarice. When a person confronts accidie, he or she faces a pivotal spiritual crossroads where the choice reflects moral courage—or moral cowardice.”
In Las Vegas, we witnessed the horrific impact of utter moral indifference from the inscrutable mind and heart of Stephen Paddock. And we witnessed the heights of moral courage. Both astonishing. Both, at their heart: spiritual mysteries.
The question now is: Can we respond in some meaningful way?
A SPIRITUAL INVENTORY
In the face of such great mysteries, we encourage people to respond with spiritual disciplines to restore spiritual vitality. Among the most helpful we have found over many years of teaching and counseling, are: singing, praying, manual labor, maintenance of community, grieving, gratitude and, let’s not forget—joy.
Countless Americans are stunned, this week, in the face of the explosion from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. We seem unable to act. What can we do from this distance? How can we respond in the face of such mystery?
The questions we would begin to raise, this week, are part of a spiritual inventory we recommend for individuals and small-group discussion to confront feelings of powerlessness in the face of evil. One critical antidote to this accidie—this torpor that leaves us unable to take action—is to restore joy in our lives. In such an inventory, we ask questions such as these:
- How long has it been since you sang with great joy?
- If you once were joyous—and are no longer so—what squelched or crushed the joy in your soul?
- What feeling replaced your passion and vitality?
The only healthy way to cope with our vulnerability at moments like this is to lean into the healthy, life-giving mysteries of human life with humility and gratitude. Doing so will make us more loving and point us toward courage and service.
So let’s face these mysteries of human life. Yes, we are incredibly vulnerable. Right now, we have the twin capacities to be malignantly isolated—or to be courageously connected, loving and ultimately joyous about life.
The shootings in Las Vegas pose a deep spiritual challenge for all of us.
So, let’s use the frightening reality of our vulnerability to our advantage! Together, let’s lift up songs of great joy and love. Let’s celebrate and draw around us a compassionate community. And, while we do so, let’s make sure to welcome all the other vulnerable pilgrims we find along the way.
Care to read more?
One easy step is to explore the writings of Benjamin Pratt in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.