When the first rounds of gunfire began, they sounded like firecrackers to most of the crowd gathered outdoors at the country music festival in Las Vegas. Then concertgoers saw bloodied bodies drop to the ground, and they instinctively crouched low, in hopes of evading the sniper’s fire.
But the shooter, Stephen Paddock, was not in their midst. He was perched high above his victims, on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. From there, he used a rapid-fire weapon to rain death on 59 men and women he had never met, injuring at least 500 more.
The assault is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. And Paddock’s separation from his prey underscored the profound social isolation of a middle-aged, twice-divorced loner who lived with his girlfriend and occupied his time with high-stakes gambling.
As a stunned nation reacted to the carnage in Las Vegas, the news stirred the same question that has followed other mass shootings: What led Paddock, a man with no prior criminal record, to take the lives of so many innocent people and then turn his weapon on himself?
“There’s absolutely no sense, no reason he did this,” his brother Eric Paddock told The Washington Post. “He’s just a guy who played video poker and took cruises and ate burritos at Taco Bell. There’s no political affiliation that we know of. There’s no religious affiliation that we know of.”
FBI officials echoed that assessment in the immediate aftermath of the mass killing.
Our modern world may doubt the existence of objective truth, but we are wired to search for answers to life’s mysteries, including man’s inhumanity to his fellow men.
There are experts in forensic and social sciences who believe that genes and family upbringing play a role in the creation of a sociopath, and they will say it’s no coincidence that Paddock’s father was a bank robber who broke out of prison and spent years on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Paddock’s mother told her children that their father had died after he was sent to prison.
Meanwhile, Church leaders have opened another window onto the events in Las Vegas. The terror unleashed that evening serves “as a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the very real presence of evil in our world,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, where the local Church organized a Rosary and a Mass for the victims of the shooting and their families. “Let us resolve each day to treat our brothers and sisters with dignity, charity and respect.”
In separate statements, Pope Francis expressed his “spiritual closeness” to the victims, and Bishop Joseph Pepe of Las Vegas said Church leaders and the faithful would pray “for those who have been injured, those who have lost their lives, for the medical personnel and first responders, who, with bravery and self-sacrifice, have helped so many.”
Paddock’s victims and their loved ones surely deserve our prayers. Likewise, our nation, which has already begun to view mass shootings as an almost routine event, is greatly in need of prayers.
In the wake of past attacks in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 and Columbine, Colorado, in 1999, the gun-control debate has served as a very limited placeholder for what should be a far more robust conversation about the state of our culture and the forces that resist neat policy solutions.
How, to take one example, should our political leaders address the disturbing fact that two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths are suicides, and white middle-aged loners like Paddock are now the most likely to take their own lives?
Washington, in fact, is not equipped to address the spiritual crisis that leaves so many people adrift. We have always been a deeply individualistic people, but that distinctive trait was once moderated by deep religious beliefs and by strong families and communities.
Today, the American experiment in ordered liberty is sliding into disorder. Sociologists, criminologists and psychologists can address the symptoms of our malaise, but can they heal the wounds inflicted by family breakups and a culture that has confused hedonism with real freedom? Can they really explain why some men, overwhelmed by life’s cares, cut loose from their families and others struggle on and find a new sense of hope?
Now, more than ever, we need the Gospel message that assures a broken world of God’s abundant, merciful love and also warns us of an opposing presence of evil, and believers must share the Word as they offer comfort and help.
“Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God, we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (387). “Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.”
These truths deepen our love of God and our humble awareness of the power of sin. Now they must inspire our efforts to bring the light of Christ to the peripheries, where fatherless children and alienated men are forgotten and alone.
This month, as many U.S. bishops prepare to consecrate their dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, let the terror unleashed in Las Vegas draw us ever closer to the Father’s sheltering arms — and let our Blessed Mother “be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil.”
“The action of God, the Lord of history, and the co-responsibility of man in the drama of his creative freedom are the two pillars upon which human history is built,” states the document released in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that published detailed materials about the third Fatima secret.
“Our Lady, who appeared at Fatima, recalls these forgotten values. She reminds us that man’s future is in God and that we are active and responsible partners in creating that future.”