Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.: What Happened in Vegas?

Our Lady of Good What?
October 9, 2017
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By Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., Crisis Magazine, Oct. 9, 2017

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

At first sight, we all know what happened in Las Vegas. A man by the name of Paddock locked himself in a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Below, in the courtyard, country/western musicians were performing in concert before thousands of music fans. The man had been into real estate. He gambled a lot. He bought guns. His father robbed banks and spent time in jail. Paddock himself had three brothers, a couple of broken marriages, no children, and a girlfriend. No one knew too much about him. Unlike most similar cases, he left no notes of explanation. Evidently, he planned to escape but, when trapped, shot himself. Fifty-nine people were killed after he broke the window and shot. About five hundred others were wounded. No warnings were given. No explanation was proffered.

The local, national, and world reaction is one of horror. The killings seemed “senseless.” But the question that I want to reflect on here is this: Was there anything wrong with what Paddock did with his many guns? At first most people would say: “Of course something was wrong. He shot innocent people.” To hold this view consistently, however, we must maintain that something is wrong with killing people. Or is it just “I won’t kill you if you won’t kill me?”

Our judgment on the wrongness of the act, in other words, is based on a theory (or on reasons) that explains why such killing is wrong. Surely it is not wrong solely because of some arbitrary law of some all-powerful government? Does our society acknowledge any such theory about why it is precisely “wrong,” even though the law seems to assume it?

Very few people who own guns go around shooting others. Some do shoot those who try to kill them or others, which, among other things, is what a gun is for. This protection is why police and soldiers are armed. But to be horrified at the shooting simply as a tragic fact does not explain why it is wrong. We can be horrified at a hurricane, but nothing is “wrong” with a hurricane being a hurricane. It does what it does. Nature produces hurricanes. They strike where they will, in Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, the Virgin Islands, or most any place in their reach.

When a hurricane or volcanic eruption kills many people, no specific human person is to be blamed. As Aristotle said, we can only praise or blame something that is caused by a free moral agent. Thus, in the Vegas case, the whole world engaged itself in an effort to learn “why” Paddock shot those people whom he did not know. He acted like a hurricane. The people who were shot did not know the day or the hour. Yet, we insist on knowing “why” because an act of nature and an act of a human being must be judged in a different manner. We assume there must be a cause. The situation is not clarified until we find it out.

Basically, we want to affirm 1) that something is radically wrong when one human being shoots or kills others in some random violence. 2) We assume that the man who killed the people in Vegas was responsible for what he did. Had he not killed himself or been shot, he would have had to stand trial for murder. We notice in the long spate of Muslim-related killings in Europe and America, the killers always wanted to take responsibility for the killing or damage inflicted. ISIS even wanted to take credit for Vegas whether it had anything to do with it or not. In the ISIS view, some such killings are justified and have a public purpose.

At one time, no doubt, most people would have said the following: A man who deliberately plotted, prepared for, and killed numerous other innocent people, who then shot himself, had only one fate in eternity, known familiarly as “hell.” He had no time for repentance. I do not recall any mention of such an approach in any of the media discussions that I have heard or read. We do not like to hear talk of such things. Emphasis has been rather on “How can we prevent such things in the future?” We are no longer concerned with the killer. We assume that Paddock must have had his motives, ones that we can understand. No one doubts that his final act was by himself, though some speculation exists about a connection with ISIS and others think that he must have had help at some point.

But the question keeps coming back: Was he guilty of anything? If he was guilty, we must have a theory that explains why he was responsible. Yet, almost all of the explanations of human action in today’s society would suggest that the man was not guilty of anything. How so? We have in our education and culture, as do other countries, the phenomenon of the killing of millions of human babies in the womb. Most people now accept the scientific fact that, in the womb, we find a complete human life growing in a normal way until killed. So we have a lot of killing that does not bother many of us. We have a “theory,” something to do with human “rights,” that allows us to call what we are doing something else. We go right on doing it. Is this positon also true in the case of Paddock in Vegas? Did he have a “right” to do what he did?

Very few people believe in hell, for instance. Obviously it did not deter Paddock even if he heard of it, though hell still might be his fate whether he believed it or not. Most “educated” people are horrified that a good God would toss Paddock or anyone else forever into hellfire for a thing like killing fifty-nine people. But the flip side of this view is that nothing that we do to one another is so horrendous to deserve such an eternal fate. Ultimately, following this logic, we can do anything we want. There will be no ultimate consequences for us. Therefore, from this angle, we really do not have a reason why Paddock did anything wrong.

One of Paddock’s brothers said that he seemed to “degenerate” recently; that is, he seemed mentally unbalanced. Though we have no record of his visiting psychiatrists, still if he was in fact deranged so that he was incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, we would have to lock him up, but not say he was responsible. If all sin or disorder is due to mental disorder, as many think, then obviously it would be unjust to hold that Paddock was “responsible” for his acts. We would have found the “cause.” It would turn out that no one was responsible in the sense of freely choosing to kill these people.

Let us explore the issue of Paddock’s responsibility from another angle. Paddock went to one of the public universities in Southern California. Suppose he learned there that no order could be found in nature. Human nature, he found out, did not manifest any natural norms. He learned that he was free to make his own view of the world. He read that Justice Kennedy held this, so it must be worthy of consideration. He also learned that all civil laws were the result of a contract. But the contract only bound him if it was useful to him. He discovered that no law was higher than civil law.

Even if we say that we are free to do whatever we want except what harms others, why would anyone have to obey this positive law, if it did not help him do what he wanted? If no naturally binding moral law exists, why is he not free to do whatever he wants? That is the highest freedom, the freedom not to be bound by any silly distinction like that between good and evil. A free man is able to make his own law. If he chooses to shoot up a concert in Vegas, why is he not free to do so? Who is empowered to tell him he can’t? So, again, if this were his worldview, Paddock did nothing “wrong.” He only exercised that freedom taught in many universities as the norm of our moral being.

But what about death? Obviously, Paddock shot himself in the end. Did this consequence not frighten him? This issue was already brought up by Socrates. Obviously, Paddock will never be punished by the State of Nevada for a crime perpetrated in its jurisdiction. He shot himself. He obviously realized what would happen to him if he were captured alive. He preferred death, though it is by no means certain that, had he stood trial, he would have been convicted or executed. He could probably have expected two or three years of litigation.

Suppose that Paddock, like many others, did not believe in any afterlife, any punishment beyond this life. If he is killed or kills himself with this notion in mind, then nothing is left to worry about. There is no eternal punishment or reward. His crimes were simply events in the world. He joined the fifty-nine he shot within ten minutes of each other. But since nothing further could happen if there were no God, judgment, or hell, what was there to worry about? Beyond death is just inertness. Everyone dies. Paddock himself, as Pat Buchanan intimated, would now be a somebody in the history of the world. From Mesquite, Nevada, he would be famous as causing the greatest mass killing in the country. But nothing would happen to him. He evidently thought it better to be known than unknown, however this fame is to be achieved.

One final approach might be through mercy. Suppose Paddock was a true believer. He heard that God’s mercy is universal, that God would forgive all our sins no matter how heinous. He knew that if he threw himself on God’s mercy, he would be saved no matter how grave his sins. After all, many folks have done things worse than what he did and seem to have been forgiven. Since he believed in God’s mercy, he had nothing to fear. To God all things are possible. Many theologians argued for universal salvation. Thus, his real motive was a confidence in God’s mercy both for himself and those he shot.

So again, the troubling question comes up. Did Paddock do anything wrong in the light of all these theories that can justify him? In the end, this issue is the one that Paddock’s action presents to our nation and culture. Do they really have any reason that would find anything “wrong” with his action? We mostly reject the notion that a distinction between good and evil is found in reason and nature. We are only responsible for living in the world we make for ourselves.

The killings in Las Vegas are not about guns. They are about whether we can hold human beings responsible to acknowledge the distinction between good and evil. If there is no way to ground this distinction other than by arbitrary power, it is difficult to see why Paddock did anything wrong, or why anyone should be shocked at the event. The one theory that might be able to state why he did anything wrong is itself largely rejected in our society. Las Vegas probably tells us more about ourselves than we want to know.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His recent books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven(2016) and the forthcoming On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence(Emmaus Road, 2017).