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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Las Vegas and the American Nightmare

A return to the scene of a massive and pointless crime.

The name of the neighborhood is Prominence. 

From its vantage high above the landscape, you can see where the I-15 leaves Nevada to dog-ear Arizona and stretch into Utah, and the sagebrush and Joshua trees yield to cottonwoods and sego lilies. Chalky-peach mesas impassively preside over a vast desert, flat and steely, reaching out past nowhere. You can see hills pixelated by ranks of stucco houses, each more or less identical. The place exudes an air of sameness and ersatz invariance: an eerie suspension, like the dummy-towns built for nuclear ruin at the Nevada Test Site, a hundred miles west of here in Mesquite. That day, no children played in the street. Wind chimes hung above some neighbors’ porches, but they didn’t ring. The only sound I heard as I parked my car on the corner of Cool Springs and White Water was an intermittent popping from behind a ridge, in an undeveloped area. Construction, most likely, though there is a gun range nearby. The open desert offers plenty of space to fire wildly into nothing. 

I thought there might have been press, or that I would have been glared at by locals who knew what I’d come to see. But I was alone as I sidled toward 1372 Babbling Brook Court, steno pad tucked between my arm and ribs like a football. The house is a one-story, mocha brown with beige accents. There are a handful of shrubs and budding palms out front, along with some rocks neatly piled around the base of a mesquite tree. And then there’s gravel, white and bright in the beating sun. No one lives in the house, and there’s no gate closing off the backyard. I could have gotten closer, but couldn’t overcome its repellant force, like trying to push together the matching ends of magnets. 

I left the neighborhood and found a walking trail that wrapped around behind it, offering a full view of the backyard. The adjacent houses have pools and barbecues, tables and chairs, decorative clocks and other ornaments. But here there are only more shrubs and immaculate gravel—a blankness, ordered but unsignifying, like a curveless Zen garden. All the blinds were drawn. No way to see inside. 

The last man who lived here, Stephen Paddock, is remembered as the person who, on the night of October 1st, 2017, opened fire into a crowd of 22,000 people at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. He killed 59 people including himself, and shot nearly 500 more, injuring over 800 in total (accounting for the wounds incurred in frantic attempts to escape, victims of trampling and barbwire lacerations), and traumatized untold thousands more for untold years to come. Prior to that night, though, homeowners in Prominence knew him as typically “reclusive,” “a real loner,” but, on the whole, a good neighbor, in that he never bothered talking to them much. His family had much the same opinion of him. Shortly after the massacre, Paddock’s brother Eric told reporters “this is like you called me up and told me my next door neighbor did this and I’d go ‘wow…well all I’ve ever seen him do is mow his yard.’” Around that same time, one of Paddock’s next door neighbors put a sign on their door that read: “We do not have anything to provide relating to the actions of our neighbor or insight into his behavior. We did not know him.” 

Years out from the attack, one has to wonder if anybody really did. Investigators initially identified Paddock’s long-term girlfriend Marilou Danley as a possible accomplice, but leads went nowhere. According to the 81-page report released by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police department, Danley said that in the year before October 1st (or “1 October,” the incident’s official appellation), Paddock “had become ‘distant’ and their relationship was no longer intimate.” They were regulars at Peggy Sue’s diner and bar in Mesquite, where Danley would sing karaoke, though in that last year he was more interested in spending time at shooting ranges. She took it as a new hobby of his. 

According to Danley, Paddock was “‘germaphobic’ and had a strong reaction to smells.” Peggy Reiko Paddock, his ex-wife, remembered him as “intelligent and great with numbers.” His physician described him as “‘odd’ in behavior with ‘little emotion’ shown.” He suspected Paddock might have had bipolar disorder, but Paddock avoided discussing the subject further; he appeared to be afraid of medications. “He helped make me and my family wealthy,” his brother Eric said. “That’s the Steve I know.” Paddock had no children and few friends. He was known to take spontaneous trips to Europe, Asia, and South America, mostly by himself. He spent most of his nights at casinos playing video poker, often until six or seven in the morning, and slept during the day. He reportedly disliked sunlight. 

The details of Paddock’s life aren’t uninteresting, but in the light of his crime they somehow manage to neither provide good answers nor raise good questions. Stephen was the eldest son of Benjamin Paddock, a bank robber who spent eight years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. You might think this could suggest possible childhood trauma or inherited psychopathy, but Benjamin was largely a nonentity in his life. “We didn’t grow up under his influence,” Eric assured his interviewers. Stephen Paddock worked for the U.S. Postal Service, then as an IRS agent, then as an auditor for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and eventually opened a real estate business with his mother. For the last half of his life, though, he made most of his money gambling. “He did it because it was a way to have a fun life, and he didn’t go poor doing it,” Eric told reporters. However, in that same interview he claimed that his brother “didn’t love the casino,” that it was merely “a means to an end…a place where you lived and they were nice to you, and you could get it paid for by playing slots.” The best summation he could give of his brother’s life, delivered with such bewildered sincerity that he might have believed it to be a sufficient epitaph, was this: “He’s a guy who lived in a house in Mesquite. He’d go down and gamble in Las Vegas. He did stuff. Ate burritos.”

“Something happened,” Eric said, “that drove him into the pit of hell.”

What was that something? No one knows, and most likely never will. Paddock’s autopsy revealed no evidence of disease of any kind in his skull. He left no manifesto, professed no allegiance to any chauvinist cause [1], left no public record of his interior life whatsoever. There was so little fodder for a moral panic—no goths, bullies, violent video games, or religious fundamentalism—that most national media moved on from the deadliest and most militarized shooting in American history within a matter of weeks. In a rare moment of contrition, the NRA released a statement calling for tighter regulation of bump stocks, the device Paddock used to modify his semi-automatic rifles to fire like automatic ones. “Dancing showgirls and chapel-wedding newlyweds,” reads an article published in the Washington Post a few months after the incident, “were back in the streets of Las Vegas soon after the gunman sprayed across a music festival in October, signaling a quick return to normalcy.” Amanda Fortini, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted that the article “does what so many articles written by outsiders do and conflates the city with the Strip,” and that the truth is “Las Vegas, its residents, and the tourists who were at the concert have not returned to normalcy.” 

1 October is the axis around which public life and memory will revolve in Vegas for some time; the conversations and street corners all now bear its imprint, however faint. In the city I’ve called home for my entire life, we all know what happened here—the real question, made all the more torturous by its unanswerability, is why it happened here. The traditional frames of reference for understanding these sorts of things seem especially inadequate. Guns have something to do with it, yes, and most likely mental illness too, though not in the facile way most are accustomed to thinking of it. What’s hardly ever considered for very long or very seriously is the social substrate, which was what I drove out to Mesquite to try and find—the inputs that might have plausibly balanced the equation of why he did what he did. 

I write this as I sit at a bar in the Eureka Casino, one of Paddock’s old haunts. It’s a Saturday, late in the morning. In the parking lot there’s a red, prism-shaped tower holding signs that read

Thank you for voting us

  • Best Casino
  • Best Table Gaming
  • Best Hotel
  • Best Customer Service
  • Best Seafood
  • Best Buffet
  • Best Restaurant
  • Best Prime Rib
  • Best Breakfast

Inside, the light is dim and the air smells like any other locals’ casino: like chlorinated shampoo intermixed with liquor and smoke, strangely redolent of some kind of embalming fluid. Frankie Valli’s scratchy falsetto soars from the oldies station, above the warbling of the machines and spasmodic hooting from the craps tables. The clientele is turkey-necked, shuffling across the casino floor in bulky orthopedic shoes and thong sandals, in Bermuda shorts, cargos, polo shirts and visors, sunglasses perched on foreheads. The patrons at the bar, fiddling with the thin little straws in their cocktails and idly tapping on the video blackjack screens, look as though they were animatronic fixtures, their expressions weary and unvarying. The mood is purgatorial. This is where some people come to enjoy the twilight of their lives, and there’s a certain grotesquerie to them, to their looks of quiet indignation. There’s a bald man in wire-frame glasses sitting at a poker machine with one leg crossed over the other, distended gut pouring over his belt and an arm draped over the back of his chair. Two cocktail waitresses in black fishnets and heels have flitted by to ask if he’d like another drink and he’s waved them both away without a word. It occurs to me that he could be somebody who might have known Paddock on at least a superficial level, regular to regular. I think of going up and talking to him, but he comes off as someone who takes his leisure time seriously and wouldn’t take kindly to interruptions.

People come to Vegas looking for an experience: for risk and disinhibition, all highly monitored and controlled without seeming so. They go to the poker tables to test their confidence against that of strangers, and the thrill comes from reading their intentions and the compounding misjudgments. Video poker tends to attract locals. It’s quiet, solitary, unglamorous, but in many ways less intimidating, and that’s why I think they like it. It’s also one of the worst culprits when it comes to gambling addiction. The computer doesn’t make mistakes, and it can’t lie. It’s designed solely to let you win just enough to keep hope alive—in the language of behaviorism, the reinforcement is variable and intermittent, the kind most likely to get you to keep playing and keep losing [2]. 

There are some people, though, who are canny enough with numbers to know the odds of any particular machine paying out to a few hundredths of a percent, game it to their advantage, and make a living doing it. Stephen Paddock was one of them. David Walton was another. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Walton recalled one day in 2007 at the Mandalay Bay—ten years before Paddock would ascend to the 32nd floor of that very same hotel to carry out his massacre—when Paddock sat at the sole Jacks-or-better 9-6 machine in the casino, offering the best odds out of any other machine in the casino, and gambled for 24 hours straight. Paddock would gamble over $120,000 an hour to win tickets to enter the $100,000 raffle, hardly speaking at all. 

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone titled “A Nice Place to Visit,” where Rocky Valentine, “a scared, angry little man,” “tired now, tired of running or wanting, of waiting for breaks that come to others but never to him,” is shot dead by police after robbing a pawn shop. He wakes up, apparently unharmed, greeted by a man in a white tuxedo who introduces himself as Pip. Rocky asks him what he’s after, to which Pip answers, “Only one thing, Mr. Valentine: your comfort. My job is to see to it that you get what you want. Whatever it may be.” Pip brings Rocky to a posh hotel room, which he’s told now belongs to him, and that his every wish—for money, for women, anything and everything—will be granted. Rocky asks if Pip is his guardian angel;  “Something like that,” Pip responds. Rocky goes to the casino and finds that he can’t lose. Rapturous with his good fortune, he asks Pip if he can see his other friends who’ve died, and is told that he’s the only person who actually lives in the place. After a month, Rocky can’t stand it anymore: 

“I’m bored! Bored!…There’s no excitement around here. No kicks…When you win every time that ain’t gambling, that’s charity…it don’t mean anything if it’s all set up in advance. Everything’s great here. Just the way I always imagined it, except that I don’t think I belong here. I don’t think I fit in. I don’t belong in Heaven, see? I want to go to the other place!”

“Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine?” Pip exclaims. “This is the other place!” [3]

Stephen Paddock was no Rocky Valentine. Towards the end of his life, reports show that losing might have finally caught up to him. He hadn’t made it to Hell quite yet. But it’s possible to imagine his life as one long, solipsistic delusion, just like Rocky’s. He was considered what’s known as a “comp hustler,” playing and winning enough to be rewarded with free suites, meals, and other perks and special attention from casinos. For Paddock, this may have been enough to convince him he had invalidated the idea that there are some things money can’t buy. “It was fun to hang out with Steve because he was a rich guy who hung out in hotels,” Eric said. He wasn’t like those other rubes, frittering away their savings in games rigged for their failure. He was smarter than them. He beat the system, and did it all on his own; he was self-made. He didn’t need other people—though he didn’t mind if people needed him. 

Americans in general are preoccupied with self-reliance, but Nevada in particular—and even more particularly Las Vegas—engenders and encourages that mindset. Prominence is part of the master-planned retirement community of Sun City Mesquite, owned by the real estate company Del Webb. “No one understands the importance of community like Del Webb,” reads the page titled “The Del Webb Difference” on their website. “That’s why we can say we offer so much more than a beautiful home; we offer a place to belong.” But one has to wonder what exactly their idea of community is. The company also owns the Anthem country club in Henderson, Nevada. It’s ironically fitting, I think, that “Anthem” is also the name of the Ayn Rand’s dystopian novella in which the very idea of individuality has been abolished, to the point that people only speak with the pronouns “we,” “our,” and “they.” Rand spent her entire career railing against interdependence, presumably one of the undergirding principles of community; Margaret Thatcher, one of her more eminent acolytes, went so far as to aver “there is no such thing as society.” 

My work once sent me to pick up some medical records from a surgeon who lives in Anthem. The entrance is guarded by armed security, who rather aggressively interrogate visitors regarding their reason for coming. After getting past the first gates, I was required to scan my parking pass in order to get past another set of gates (which took me a good amount of fumbling to work) behind which the surgeon’s house resided, a colossal McMansion, a vulgar pastiche of every architectural signifier of wealth you could imagine. It, too, has another set of gates, with a sign reading “Warning: Area Patrolled by German Shepherds.” [4] I took it that this man, too, doesn’t care much for dealing with other people. 

Paddock was putatively apolitical, but it’s hard not to consider this ambient, antisocial resentment as at least a partial determinant of his actions. Bunkerville lies just a few miles outside of Mesquite, home of the swaggering rancher and rabid anti-government militant Cliven Bundy. His 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, along with his sons’ 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, garnered significant national attention, as well as the full-throated support of the sovereign-citizen movement, who deny the legitimacy of any authority they perceive as violating individual liberty. Observers worried about another Ruby Ridge or Waco, other deadly anti-government standoffs that have left retributive and mimetic acts of violence in their wake. Timothy McVeigh sought vengeance for Ruby Ridge and Waco by bombing a government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, aspired to top McVeigh’s body count, hoping to attack on the anniversary of the bombing (they missed it by one day). The intentions of these attacks, including 1 October, were not all political, but the motivations behind them—the sense of privilege and grievance—certainly were. 

When it comes to making sense of these tragedies, I think a literary imagination might be more suitable than reviews of the empirical data. The great Russian writers seem like an obvious place to start. As Pankaj Mishra puts it in his book Age of Anger, “Russian writers established randomly aimed crime as a paradigm case of free individuals savouring their identity and asserting their will.” Dostoyevsky in particular, he says, had “seen acutely how individuals, trained to believe in a lofty notion of personal freedom and sovereignty, and then confronted with a reality that cruelly cancelled it, could break out of paralyzing ambivalence into gratuitous murder and paranoid insurgency.” The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin dreamt of his ideal revolutionary as someone who has “severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose—to destroy it.” Uprooted from its political and historic context, that ethos could very well align with that of contemporary mass murderers, bolstering their flagging sense of self—a self diffused in the anomic mist of consumer culture—through spectacular acts of violence. 

Still, the violence of 1 October has a distinctly American character to it. In the state of moral dizziness that night left me in, I found that the writer perhaps best attuned to it—whatever it is—was Don DeLillo. A few days after the shooting, I picked up Libra, DeLillo’s fictionalized account of the JFK assassination from the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald. In his telling, Oswald suffered from a perpetually shifting, profoundly unstable sense of self. He lived a poor, itinerant life of moving between smaller and smaller rooms. He was attracted to Marxism because he saw in it a way to make sense of his condition of indigence and alienation in capitalist society, and of connecting himself to a higher purpose: “He wanted to carry himself with a clear sense of role, make a move one time that was not disappointed…He thought the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give this point is history.” Even then, DeLillo’s Oswald found his dreams thwarted at every turn; even in the Soviet Union, the beating heart of the revolution, he was a zero in the system. He could not find a way to live in history, to live outside of himself. 

So he found other means. One day, Oswald learned that President Kennedy would be visiting Dallas, and that his motorcade would be passing right below the school book depository where he worked, at a time when he would be working alone. Late one night, he watched the movie Suddenly on TV, wherein Frank Sinatra becomes involved in a conspiracy to assassinate a president. Oswald “felt connected to the events on the screen. It was like secret instructions entering the network of signals and broadcast bands, the whole busy air of transmission…They were running a message through the night into his skin.” The universe was telling him how we would become a part of history. Or rather, as another conspirator involved with the CIA would tell him, “there’s something else that’s generating this event. A pattern outside of experience…you’ve had it backwards all this time. You wanted to enter history. Wrong approach…What you really want is out. Get out. Jump out. Find your place and your name on another level.” In Libra, Oswald kills the president not out of any political conviction or personal hatred—in fact, in many ways, Oswald appeared to idolize Kennedy, to see himself in him—but out of a desire to join his fate to someone who was already part of history. As DeLillo would later write of Oswald, “in the end, there was nothing left of him but a defeated ego, a self isolated from the world and from other people. He fell out of history and politics and became a figure in one of his own bent daydreams.” 

“In America, it is the individual himself, floating on random streams of disaffection, who tends to set the limits of the absurd,” DeLillo continues. The assassination was the primal scene of American absurdity, introducing a pervasive sense of randomness into national consciousness:

“A man walks into a diner and shoots eleven strangers. What city was that, and who remembers the shooter’s name? A couple of teenagers wander through their school building shooting teachers and students. How many times did this happen, and where exactly, and who were the kids with the guns? Oswald changed history not only through his involvement in the death of the president but also in prefiguring such moments of the American absurd. He was not media-poisoned, as many others have been, and his crime was not steeped in the supermarket cult of modern folklore and dread…This was vintage American violence, lonely and rootless, but it shaded into something older and previously distant, a condition of estrangement and helplessness, an undependable reality. We felt the shock of unmeaning.” 

The 21st century so far might best be defined by such unmeaning horrors. A few months after 1 October, I was at a bowling alley in a casino near my house with a couple of friends. As we were getting ready to leave, the lights went out with a menacing whoosh, returning a minute later. But they came with a fitful crackling sound, and looking down from the top of the escalators the casino floor was suspiciously empty. We would find out later that the sound came from the backup generators starting up. But we made our way out the emergency exit anyway, not quite panicked, but not quite doubting that something sinister was underway. It would have made about as much sense as anything else. 

Maybe this was this kind of revenge that Paddock sought against society, to impose over public spaces a regime of dread and uncertainty. In this way he would resemble another one of DeLillo’s most iconic characters, the Texas Highway Killer in Underworld. In one section set in the late 1980s, someone has been randomly targeting lone commuters, pulling up next to them and sticking a gun out the window to shoot before speeding away. A girl accidentally catches one of the killings on video, and the media becomes fixated, playing the footage every hour of the day. The killer calls into a local news station to assure them his childhood was healthy, that he was no victim of head trauma or bad neurology, and that he has no political motivations. The reader comes to learn that the killer is a man named Richard, a lonely, anxious bagger at a supermarket. He used to work in a glass booth breaking change and batching checks, but he made some mistakes and was forced out to the registers, where he finds himself too weak and hollow to withstand “the casual abuse of passing strangers in the world.” He shoots because he has to “take his feelings outside himself so’s to escape his isolation…take everything outside, share it with others, become part of the history of others, because this was the only way to escape, to get out from under the pissant details of who he was.” He feels whole talking on the phone to the newscaster while watching the looped footage of his crimes on the television screen, knowing at last that he’s really real. 

Is it possible that Paddock saw himself as DeLillo’s Oswald and Richard saw themselves—and as we see him now—as some mere suggestion of a person? The greater part of Paddock’s life was spent not creating anything, but alone at a machine turning one dollar into two. When the money and privileges that Paddock had worked so hard and long for began to look like they might have been at risk, when it turned out he maybe wasn’t as smart or capable as he thought he was—then maybe other people, too, began to appear just as fickle and unreal. He couldn’t establish any measure of his own worth, substance, or even existence outside of his head, and when the integrity of his self was thrown into question he became desperate. His despair, though, is not exceptional in America; only his response to it was. 

If it’s true that history ended and grand narratives have lost their use, then it should come as no surprise that somewhere along the way it seems we lost the plot. It’s difficult for many to interpret the course of events as much more than a sequence of random acts of chaos, each smearing into the next while precluding any chance for resolution, let alone justice. Visions of a brighter future for all grow dimmer and dimmer as the world becomes more distorted and frightening in its complexity with each passing day. In the midst of this, individuals have been set adrift to the tides of the market, where opportunities for self-determination are few and diminishing rapidly, unballasted by communal purpose or commitment. When everyone is left to fend for themselves, even wealth can’t protect one entirely from this sense of loneliness, anxiety, and disempowerment. Some can get by with the fantasies and distractions the culture provides, but when these lose their power to comfort, egos are left abandoned to their resentment. In the war of all against all, where aggrandizement is the highest aim, you become the sole protagonist; and everyone else must become the enemy, against whom all is permissible. 

[1]  Of course this didn’t stop ISIS from claiming responsibility for the attack, or a not insignificant number of people from believing them.
[2]  When video poker was first introduced into Vegas casinos in the 1980s, they proved so popular and profitable that there was talk among the moguls of getting rid of regular poker rooms almost entirely.
[3] Incidentally, Donald Trump has cited this episode as an influence on his business philosophy. As he told the journalist Wayne Barrett, “I want to win, win, win. Everything I want, I want to get. I want the most beautiful women. I want to get the beautiful this and that. I want to never lose again.” Asked on one occasion what his goals were, he responded, “You keep winning and you win and you win. You keep hitting and hitting. And then it somehow doesn’t mean as much as it used to.”
[4] The surgeon’s sign called to mind political scientist Corey Robin’s argument that, aesthetically, libertarianism tends toward kitsch, and politically toward fascism.

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