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Killing for Kicks?

eye on the news

Killing for Kicks?

Black-hearted Stephen Paddock was a gambling addict—a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked in analyzing his motives. October 4, 2017
Public safety

Most of the analyses about Stephen Paddock’s Las Vegas massacre have focused on a political or social motive. Was he an anti-government racist? Did he hate conservatives? Was he in fact, as ISIS keeps claiming, a Muslim jihadi? These arguments, and more, are plausible, but the hunt for motive obscures what seems more likely to be the real reason Paddock shot hundreds of people: that he did it for fun.

Paddock’s life for the last decade or so, as much as it can be reconstructed, appears to have been based in and around casinos. Having made a few million dollars through buying and selling rental properties, and having no children or significant family ties, he lived a low-key life of affluence. Paddock owned several houses in exurban luxury communities, where he could park his meager belongings and rest up between jaunts to the casinos—his real home. He was a consistent gambler at high-stakes slot and video-poker machines, betting about $10,000 a day—“the small end of the big fish,” as his brother describes him.

It may emerge, as has been rumored, that he had enormous debts, the strain of which “made him crack,” but it seems more likely that Paddock, the accountant who carefully made himself and his brother rich through property management, was a “comps” player, enjoying the perks and freebies that casinos offer their regular customers. Like airlines do with frequent-flyer programs, casinos monitor how much their guests spend and offer their most dedicated consumers carefully calibrated rewards, ranging from free drinks to meals to lodging.

Unlike airplane travel, however, which can only be consumed in limited quantities, gambling is addictive. The amount spent on any bet is theoretically limitless. Casino gambling is designed to provide psychological rewards with each bet—even when you lose—and to prompt you to keep at it. Video-based machines provide an added dimension of compulsivity, essentially putting gamblers into an electronically induced trance; they chase the dopamine hit that they have been conditioned to expect from their statistically predictable, periodic wins. Entrained to the rhythms of the machine, the video-poker addict loses his sense of time or place, especially since he doesn’t even have to interact with a human dealer. No depiction of the wrecked souls of assembly-line workers or spreadsheet drones can compare with the sight of gamblers glumly feeding money into multiple slot machines, with scarcely a flicker of acknowledgement—even when they win.

Stephen Paddock clearly managed his “points” well, and he was lavishly comped for his gambling expenditures, apparently living in casino hotels for months at a time. But if he was having a high time, one wouldn’t have guessed it. Described as a slob, Paddock looks, in the few pictures of him that have emerged, like he bought whatever clothes were sold at the airport or hotel lobby. He routinely slept until the afternoon, always appeared bleary-eyed, berated his girlfriend at Starbucks, and apparently consumed generous quantities of whiskey and Valium. He lived life based on the odds of how long he could continue to maintain his “lifestyle.”  

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” That well-worn saying, which supposedly evokes glamour and secret thrills, also speaks to the self-consuming logic of addiction, from which there is no escape. The addict chases the dragon of excitement, but neurochemistry quickly develops tolerance to that initial dose, and the “hit” becomes more and more elusive, until it finally evaporates. All that’s left, eventually, is the mechanism of addiction, which becomes compulsion.  Perhaps Paddock had so burnt out his dopamine and serotonin receptors that he had no remaining capacity for pleasure or novelty.

Overlooking the Las Vegas Strip from one of his anonymous luxury suites—paid for, drop by drop, with the dregs of his soul—black-hearted Stephen Paddock very well may have contemplated mass murder as a sensualist exercise. The impulse to impute meaning—even evil meaning—to his actions is understandable, as are our attempts to learn more about his opinions and beliefs. Maybe the answer is less existential: maybe, as a degenerate gambling and luxury addict, Stephen Paddock killed all those people just for kicks.

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