Saturday 21 July 2018

Analysis: Getting inside the mind of Las Vegas killer Stephen Paddock

We need to delve deep into the psyche of Paddock to understand why he committed such an act, says Ian Gargan

Mystified grief: A woman mourns at a makeshift memorial in Las Vegas
Mystified grief: A woman mourns at a makeshift memorial in Las Vegas

Ian Gargan

Over the past week we have looked on with disbelieving eyes and seen the true destructive power one person can wield against fellow human beings.

The man from Las Vegas, known by family and friends to be kind and friendly, used an arsenal of automatic weapons to gun down innocent concertgoers.

Stephen Paddock's brother described the killer as a 'kind, burrito-eating, everyday kind of guy'.

Paddock was a wealthy accountant who lived in suburbia, had a relationship with a female partner and went about his business without much attention. He had no history of criminal activity and wasn't on police radar in any way. He bought the weapons legally and nobody suspected his catastrophic intentions.

When discerning what might drive criminal behaviour, a risk profile is created with information about criminal history or extreme behaviours relative to the individual's 'normal' routine. Though Paddock had no criminal history, his father was an adept bank robber who featured on the FBI's most wanted list. The family history could be a risk factor: there are also theories suggesting criminal behaviour is genetic.

Paddock was also risk prone - he loved to gamble. Taking risks made him feel excited, aroused emotionally and content. This behaviour would also have contributed to his success as an entrepreneur. These aspects of his personality would not have sounded alarm bells for the authorities, but looking back would suggest Paddock could have had psychopathic or sociopathic traits.

Gunman: Stephen Paddock
Gunman: Stephen Paddock

Paddock displayed premeditation in his preparation. He didn't purchase the weapons all at once. A hotel room was booked that gave him a clear view of the outdoor concert population. He fixed cameras near the hotel room so he could monitor any intrusion on his activity.

A motive eludes us. The indiscriminate attack on people he didn't know appears to have had no rhyme or reason.

I have pondered over the week about the 'why'. A number of reasons may have been present, including dysfunctional mental processing, anger, disillusionment with his life, a history of abuse (in which his own sense of identity had been compromised during early developmental years) or just irrational behaviour, rooted in something so trite as a dislike for people or country music.

Every aspect of his personality must be examined with an open mind about what drove such behaviour.

Mental health challenges are not synonymous with negative behaviour. Patients who are depressed or anxious are often vulnerable, coping to overcome their emotional challenges to function - often very highly - during everyday life. They are not more likely to cause destruction to others - quite the opposite, removing themselves from the community at large and sometimes only hurting themselves in some way, to cope with difficulties understanding their own mind's machinations.

But psychosis, usually an acute episode involving a perception of impaired reality, can contribute to behaviour that is not consistent with normal daily living. So, if psychotic, the individual can abruptly perceive others as a threat, or see danger where there is none, or become very angry where usually they would be calm. These episodes are often fleeting. Paddock's meticulous planning for this attack was not acute or fleeting.

A former FBI official told NBC News Paddock might have been in "physical or mental anguish,"

Another said the shooter displayed "mental health symptoms".

"[His girlfriend] said he would lie in bed, just moaning and screaming, 'Oh, my God,'" one of the officials recalled.

Paddock was prescribed an anti-anxiety drug in June, and employees at a Starbucks near his Reno home recall him berating his girlfriend in public.

These traits may have caused significant inner turmoil for Paddock over many years, causing him to bury inclinations to engage in social behaviour.

Stories about screaming in his sleep and public displays of frustration with his partner may have been features of severe inner conflict.

While he wanted to behave in a way that supported his successful public life, an inner covert destructive energy was clearly brooding.

Anger at the world, relating to a difficult and abusive development by a primary carer or role model, may have fostered secretive behaviour that was asocial.

This may be true of Paddock, but his nearest and dearest never seem to have realised this about him.

A psychopath can hide anger and manipulate the world so others see them in a particular way. On the outside the person seems charming, intelligent and successful but on the inside there is loathing and a steely determination to reek havoc through the destruction and demise of others. This may have been true of Paddock.

But it has also crossed my mind that this could be an irrational attack with no motivation, from a man who perceived himself to have made no discernible impact on the world around him, never gaining attention of others and believing that his life had been meaningless.

An irrational act of murder would provide a definition of his life, a way to underscore his existence.

Being vulnerable to an irrational attack makes us feel frightened. What scares us even more is the realisation that someone may have no reason to want to hurt us, may not even have a reason to justify their own behaviour - they just want to do something that makes them feel life has meaning - even if that is when they decide ending another person's future could do that.

The psychology behind Paddock's behaviour may never be understood. But it could also be new, opening up more of the mind to study and understand so that we can have another aspect of human personality to fear and guard ourselves against.

Ian Gargan is a forensic psychologist and medical doctor. His book 'The Line: What Would it Take to Make You Cross It? is published by Gill

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