The bulk of coverage of the Las Vegas shooting is about victims, heroes and villains. The really important story that’s rarely covered is about how and why guns and violence have become such an absurd part of US culture and why it’s so difficult to restrict the easy access to lethal weapons designed for war.
Gun Porn and Male Alienation:
A trip to my local grocery store reveals a magazine rack with dozens of covers showing beautiful models selling a lifestyle that requires what the advertisers manufacture and market. Also on the rack are a half-dozen very slick magazines selling gun culture. There’s no other way to describe it; you never see a critical or analytic article. The photography is eye-catching and slick, the models manly and masculine — except for the hotties holding machine guns, a much loved image. There’s a strong focus on the latest versions of the now classic AR-15. The “look” of these magazines can be described only as gun porn. Instead of luscious, naked women spread across a centerfold, the usual cultural understanding of “pornography,” in these magazines its images of lethal weapons that trigger the erotic charge. (As explained later, maybe a “thanatotic” charge is more accurate.) I recall back in the 1970s the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, author of Love And Death In The American Novel, giving a lecture at Florida State in which he expanded the term pornography to include things beyond intercourse and engorged genitalia. In his mind, American marketing and pop culture was virtually defined by the term pornography. Pornography was material with little purpose or merit other than to seduce. It’s the opposite of what E. F. Schumacher envisioned in the subtitle of his famous book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. The gun porn magazine genre makes it very clear there’s lots of corporate money at stake stirring up and indulging the market for sexy weapons.
We’re told gun sales are up and rising. Fear is in the air. I recently visited a gun shop in my area that I’d visited last a couple years ago. The number of guns in the place had more than doubled. I’ve never seen so many hi-tech weapons, a huge proportion of them some version of the ubiquitous AR15, a weapon that began its career as the M16 made famous in Vietnam. As a REMF (rear echelon mother fucker) in 1966, I had an old wood-stocked M14. Infantry soldiers tell us the M16 was notorious for jamming at the worst possible moment. One can imagine the curses in a firefight. Since then, the weapon has been R&Ded to the max and is a favorite of gun lovers everywhere. There’s a huge market for accessories of all sorts to trick out one’s AR15 so it really looks cool and menacing. Things like “bump stocks” are marketed to turn a semi-automatic rifle into a fully automatic weapon of war. One marketed bump stock sells for $99.
I have a friend who owns an AR15, and I shot it with him last month. It’s indeed a satisfying mechanism to hold. I personally own two handguns and must confess there’s something very powerful about holding these weapons and shooting them. Hefting and fondling them can give one — especially a male — a real sense of power as an extension of one’s self. If you go deeper, as with an automobile, a gun is an extension of what goes on in a person’s inner life. There’s a saying that the problem is not the gun but in whose grip it resides. So let’s be honest, there is a metaphoric erotic/thanatotic charge at work here. I’ve read of infantrymen going “kill crazy,” succumbing to the physical and psychological satisfaction of ending a life or lives, especially in heated moments stoked with emotions rooted in vengeance and hatred. But, sometimes, it can just be the act of killing.
Following World War One, as he saw the world heading toward another conflagration, Sigmund Freud shifted his concern from sex to issues of violence and war. Criticism of Freud sometimes emphasized he was a “writer” and not a true “scientist.” It’s true: He’s a rich and interesting writer whose entire imaginative career was devoted to promoting and mapping out the inner life of human beings. He has become passé these days, superseded by the more efficient, outer-life-directed ideas of behaviorism and drug therapy. When Freud began his career, the whole idea of an inner life (the sub- or un-conscious) was still a novel idea. Like any writer working on the edge, he sometimes went too far, lost his bearings or just ended up sounding half-baked. His 1920 descriptions of Eros and Thanatos have something of a “working in the dark” feel about them. During this period, he exchanged letters with Albert Einstein, another great mind of the time troubled by the growing cycle of violence.
Freud’s efforts at describing Eros and Thanatos — also called the sexual, or sometimes life, instinct and the death instinct — was a noble effort, though the way the 20th century turned out, it was indeed a failed, Quixotic effort. The idea of a death instinct hinges on the notion that, like the metaphor of salmon going up stream to spawn and die, there’s a deep-seated instinct in all organic matter to return to an inorganic state. That is, as he writes in one of his books, “The aim of all life is death.” In the case of his death instinct, it’s not just any death, but a specific, destined death. The man was trying to understand something that remained allusive, just out of reach. By the time of Civilization and its Discontents in 1930, he’s very much haunted by the specter of Hitler and National Socialism. All the early stuff about sex is in the back seat. According to Freudian commentator Raymond Fancher, “It was clear to Freud that there exist daemonic, destructive forces in civilized societies, forces which he could interpret only as manifestations of Thanatos, the death instinct.” Individuals or an entire culture could be consumed or overwhelmed by this death instinct. Eros was a life force that countered Thanatos; Eros extended beyond the narrow lines of sexual intercourse to include a range of healthy and peaceful human interactions. Simplified, they coordinate in my mind as Constructive and Destructive impulses in which sex can be a factor. Remember Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape? It was often reduced to the statement that rape was not about sex; it was about power. It was an important point, but the way it was expressed always seemed to beg the question. As a European male, Freud was looking at the process less in the light of justice than in the light of understanding the impulses at play.
As I sit back and ponder American culture circa 2017 — aware of the horrors of the Vietnam War; the unlearned lessons that led to the on-going bloody debacle that is Iraq; the moral outrage that is drone warfare (Stanley McChrystal pointed out that our enemies see it as a soft, coward’s ploy); the struggle between “black lives matter” and “blue lives matter”; the violent imagery that assaults Americans every day from every angle; and, finally, the insanity of a gun culture run amok — I admire Freud’s mission to understand this stuff in a deep, metaphoric fashion.
Something is out of balance: It feels like a darkness out of the past is stalking our culture. You have to wonder, in the sense of Stage Four Breakdown, whether a culture blindered by its own fantasies and bullshit can, in the deep recesses of its DNA have a secret, inherent death wish — that is, if Freud is at all prescient in his writerly stumbling around, could we be on a runaway train not to just any death, but to a destined death. Of course, a metaphoric death can come in many shapes. Is the right-wing NRA’s notorious stubbornness a catalyst for Breakdown? Are individuals like Stephen Paddock, to borrow Peter Sederberg’s terms, “both the creator and the product of [this kind of] shared meaning,” a shared meaning steeped in fear and violence. More Eros in our communal lives would provide welcomed balance.
Stephen Paddock’s Destined Death Wish:
Imagine the man in his suite of rooms on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino. He reportedly stalked other concert venues, but for some reason he didn’t act. He was a willfully self-contained man who planned meticulously. Maybe those venues weren’t right. Maybe he just wasn’t ready. He was, no doubt, warmly welcomed as he registered. Mandalay Bay bellhops hauled his expensive luggage, unbeknownst to them containing an incredible array of weapons and ammunition, up his room. The weapons are certainly in well-designed, expensive pieces of luggage. He gives the bellhops a nice tip, then stores the cases somewhere in the room and puts a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door, so housekeeping won’t come in and see anything. Like he always did, he must have played the $100 poker machines, because his room (#32135, or room 135 on the 32nd floor) was a comp, and he had comp meals. There’s a report that, on one occasion, he ordered meals in the room for two; so he may have arranged for company. He registered at the hotel at least four days before the concert.
We can only imagine what goes through a man’s mind as he plans the public slaughter of anonymous people from a high perch. The phrase “the banality of evil” goes through my mind; it was coined by Hannah Arendt reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1963. Paddock, by all accounts, was a decent fellow. No one has dug up anyone who has said anything bad about the man — other than his crime, of course. He seems to have sincerely liked (loved?) his girlfriend Marilou Danley. Paddock arranged a ticket to the Philippines for her, and once she was there he sent her $127,000 and said for her to buy a house for her family. “She didn’t even know that she was going to The Philippines until Steve said, ‘Marilou, I found you a cheap ticket to The Philippines,’” one of Danley’s sister told the press. It would not be the first time a socially inept American male found female companionship to suit his personality in an Asian woman who did not ask questions or expect anything other than protection in life. It does not seem inconsistent that this kind of enigmatically self-centered loner would find such a woman a good match. In the photo, below, with Danley and her two sisters cooking in the Philippines, Paddock looks downright warm; he seems to be enjoying himself. By all accounts, Marilou Danley was/is a kind and generous woman. It seems possible no one is more astonished by events than Marilou Danley.
So it’s the night of the concert. There’s no evidence revealed to the public that anyone knows of Stephen Paddock’s plans other than he. The wild intensity inside Stephen Paddock’s mind must have been extraordinary as he watched from the 32nd floor as the crowds gathered. If it’s true, as Ms. Danley reportedly told investigators, that Paddock was deteriorating mentally and physically, it’s likely his life’s successes and failures passed through his mind as he meticulously set up his shooting nest. Since he shared a house in Sun City, Mesquite, with Ms. Danley, he may have been aware of stories like a recent controversy at another Del Webb active adult community, Sun City Aliante. As reported recently in a New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv called “The Takeover,” greedy predatory behavior threatened aging baby-boomers with money. The phenomenon is known as legal guardianship. It’s the sort of thing that could really disturb a wealthy, aging man obsessed with control and independence.
The New Yorker piece starts in 2013 with two residents who had been married for 55 years. Rudy North was 81; Rennie was 79. They were in their home minding their own business and there was a knock on the door; it was a woman named April Parks, accompanied by three other people. Parks owned a company named A Private Professional Guardian. “Parks told the Norths that she had an order from the Clark County Court to ‘remove’ them from their home. She would be taking them to an assisted-living facility.” The couple was stunned and confused. “Go and gather your things,” they were told. “One of Park’s colleagues said that if the Norths didn’t comply he would call the police.” Without notifying them or their children, who visited them regularly, they had been deemed by a Clark County judge to be wards of the state. Rudy may not have been a track sprinter, but he read the newspaper regularly; he read popular novels, “or, if he was feeling more ambitious,” he read Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. In a notebook, he had recently written: “Deep below the rational part of our brain is an underground ocean where strange things swim.” To make a very long and troubling story short, the couple was moved 40 miles away to Lakeview Terrace, an assisted living facility. When their daughter Judy came to visit, she found her parents missing; it took her days to figure out where they were. When she finally called Parks and told her: “You can’t just walk into somebody’s home and take them!” Parks calmly replied: “It’s legal.” And she was correct; it was all legal. The North’s home and belongings were sold by a company called “Caring Transitions.”
Since then, newspaper stories blew the lid on the scam and the court was shamed into backing away. Parks is facing trial for perjury and theft. In a culture that too often values marketing and profit over justice, these people had figured a scam to get your money from your wallet to their wallet. Like Paddock had figured out how to “flip” houses to make money, these people, in cahoots with legal operatives, worked the laws to fleece aging and vulnerable people. They especially targeted aging couples without children. And, again, it was all legal.
As a smart, savvy and capable loner like Stephen Paddock becomes aware of himself “deteriorating,” as his girlfriend told investigators, as he becomes aware of the much vaunted control of his life falling away, as he becomes aware of how cold-blooded and predatory the legal bureaucracies in such a “paradise” can be, as he immerses himself in the sexy gun culture and accumulates more and more very lethal weapons — does what he ended up doing make logical sense in a warped mind? When the life of someone like Paddock becomes troubled and when even his warmest relationships may no longer provide anything but reinforcement that he’s losing his grip, does going out in a storm of violence make sense? Might this be a “motive”? And might it qualify as the destined death Freud spoke of? A man like Paddock sees “other people” as threats to avoid or overcome — or they are seen as there to serve his needs. Crowds of people may have been abstractions for Paddock, not flesh-and-blood people worthy of empathy. Paddock seems not to have been the sort of man who would “age gracefully” or seek “help” from others. Was he a man caught in a web of personal decline with no way out? No way out, that is, except all those empowering guns he was amassing? As a woman candidate for US Senate in Nevada put it a few years ago, did Stephen Paddock employ “a second amendment solution” to punctuate a personal baby-boomer crisis of aging? Mass murder as a cry for help?
The term running amok comes from the Malay/Indonesian word meng-âmuk. It’s defined as “An episode of sudden mass assault against people or objects usually by a single individual following a period of brooding.”
How does a society politically break the cycle of right-wing obstruction and restrict the availability of so many incredibly lethal weapons? Is it really all about money and corporate profits? The 58 victims of this crazed event deserve to be counted for something, to be a voice, so to speak, in the struggle for shared meaning. Australia is a very macho nation and it successfully cut down on gun violence by legal restrictions. To watch leaders like Mitch McConnell following such a disaster is truly demoralizing. All they do is distract and stall, hoping through that process opposition will be seen as futile and events like Las Vegas will be forgotten — until the next incident. It makes you think of Nero playing his fiddle.
In 2006, Newt Gingrich wrote an item in the conservative publication Human Events arguing that the First Amendment should not be allowed to provide cover for terrorists. “Either before we lose a city, or, if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up [terrorists’] capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech. … Free speech is not an acceptable cover for those planning to kill.” The following headline topped the piece:
“The 1st Amendment Is Not a Suicide Pact.”
That was 2006. In 2017, with Stephen Paddock’s actions in mind, it’s fair to wonder whether, thanks to the political right, the NRA and the gun industry, the 2nd Amendment has become a suicide pact.