Asking the Right Questions in the Wake of Las Vegas

As the days go by, and it becomes clearer and clearer that many questions about the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting in Las Vegas will likely never be answered, our Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan therapists, Randy Flood, Al Heystek, and Otha Brown, weigh in with some thoughts on a few questions we CAN answer as well as thoughts on other questions that rarely get asked in the wake of such events.

Unanswered Questions

What motivates mass shooters to do what they do? It is a question America has been asking with increasing urgency in recent years, as mass shootings become both more common and more deadly. Sometimes there seems to be a more or less obvious explanation: the shooter was suffering from a mental illness, or was radicalized in some way by an extremist group, or was seeking revenge on a particular organization.

However, these explanations don’t seem a fit for Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old man who, on 10/1/17, killed 59 people (58 strangers and himself) and wounded approximately 500 others at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Paddock has no criminal record to speak of and no history of mental illness. He doesn’t appear to have struggled financially, or have any radical political or religious leanings. There’s also no reason at this point to suspect that he harbored a personal grudge against any of his victims. In fact, as a gambler, frequent visitor to Las Vegas, and past attendee at other country music concerts, he appears to have many qualities in common with the people he killed.

What then are we to think? What on earth happened to Stephen Paddock that caused him to commit such heartbreaking acts of violence?

Struggling with Pain

As therapists who work primarily with men on men’s issues, two facts stand out to us: 1) Paddock was a man, and 2) a man who had an obsession or fetish with guns, and stockpiled them. So far, authorities have recovered 47 different guns owned by him, 33 purchased within the last 12 months. Though gun stockpiling has become more common among gun enthusiasts in recent years, it is still unusual behavior, and 47 guns is an unusually high number.

These facts, taken together, indicate to us that while Stephen Paddock may not have struggled with the law, with mental illness, or in the workplace, he likely struggled mightily to measure up to distorted internalized standards of masculinity. In our practices, we have found that men with rigid ideas of what constitutes masculine identity are much more likely to become obsessed with “manly” objects, hobbies, and behaviors as ways of coping with the fear of being seen as unmanly, shame of not measuring up, and loneliness born of an inability to connect authentically with others.

In fact, in our experience, almost all men struggle with painful feelings of fear, shame, and loneliness, and yet, are prevented from seeking relief by thoughts such as: “I should be stronger…I need to suck it up…I need to handle it…other men don’t struggle like this…I need to get a grip…I just need to man up, then I’d be fine.” Almost from birth, men are socialized to believe that any admission of struggle, shame, or pain indicates they have failed on a personal level, and so many men opt to suffer in silence, even as their pain becomes more and more debilitating.

Externalization: One Way of Coping

Worse, since men are also typically socialized to devalue the importance of emotional intelligence—an inner life—they instead scan their external environments for threats to their well-being, and conclude that other people are causing their pain, setting the stage for all kinds of violent acting-out. As Candice Batton, Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha points out, “The majority of all homicide perpetrators are male—90-91%….Males may be more likely to be violent, especially lethally violent, because they are more likely than females to develop negative attributions of blame that are external in nature, that is: ‘The cause…of my problems is someone else or some force outside of me.’ And this translates into anger and hostility toward others…”

While we don’t know the exact nature of Stephen Paddock’s struggles, whatever pain or confusion or rage or wound or emotional hurt he had, he clearly externalized it in a way that is almost uniquely male.

An Extreme Response

To be clear, though most men struggle with emotional wounds and distorted ideas of masculinity to some extent, very few will become mass shooters. Though almost all mass shooters are male, the number of males who become mass shooters compared to the total male population is miniscule. Men suffering from emotional pain are much more likely to suffer in silence, turn to drugs or alcohol, work themselves into their graves or out of intimacy, or commit suicide, and even those who externalize by causing harm to others are likely to do so in far less dramatic ways, committing acts of domestic violence or aggravated assault. As James Alan Fox recently pointed out in USA Today, “There are countless Americans who fail at work and in relationships, who have few friends and never smile, and who blame others for all their problems. Many may even fantasize about getting even with society. But acting on those thoughts is an extreme move that very few actually take.”

As therapists, we’ve observed the vast majority of men do not act with malice. They’re just “regular guys,” trying to meet impossible standards of manhood we deem fundamentally unhealthy and dehumanizing. For some, this leads to a pathology of masculinity we have named Mascupathy—others calling it toxic masculinity. We believe men aren’t born to act out their pain onto others in violent ways; they are socialized to disconnect from their emotion and lose a part of themselves—empathy and compassion—needed to govern behavior. As bell hooks reminds us, the first act of violence for men isn’t what they do to others: “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is…that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.” This ultimately cultivates a malaise in males they don’t understand, won’t talk about, and are apt to pass on to others.

Time for a New Question

In the aftermath of the recent violence in Las Vegas, perhaps it’s time to ask not just what motivates mass shooters to do what they do, but how it is that we, as a country, tolerate so much male misery and what we can do about it.

In our practices, we see many reasons for hope. Most of the men we have treated—those who find the courage to risk “unmanliness” and ask for help—do show a remarkable capacity to open up their hearts while not losing their masculinity, but developing their full humanity. Not only does this effectively reduce violence, but men develop a more balanced and healthy version of masculinity fit for the new millennium.

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Randy Flood is the co-founder and director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan and of the Institute for the Prevention and Treatment of Mascupathy (IPTM), the culmination of a nearly 20-year career creating and developing specialized clinical services that address men’s issues. He holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University and has co-authored (with Charlie Donaldson) two books on men’s issues: Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood (IPTM, 2014) and Stop Hurting the Woman You Love: Breaking the Cycle of Abusive Behavior (Hazelden, 2006). Learn more…

Al Heystek is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked professionally with men’s issues since 1994. He has been a therapist with the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill since 2002. Prior to that Al worked for OAR, Inc. in Holland, MI, as a therapist in both outpatient and residential men’s chemical dependency programs, and for Gateway Foundation, an outpatient treatment center in Chicago. Al is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and worked for 10 years in urban ministry in Chicago. Learn more…

Otha Brown received his Master’s Degree in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a principle therapist at the Men’s Resource Center, where he works with men from a wide range of economic levels, lifestyles, cultures, ages, and ethnic and racial groups. Prior to joining Fountain Hill, he worked as an Education Coordinator for the Hahnemann University School of Medicine and at Project Transition in Montgomery County, PA, an agency that provides independent living for young adults. Learn more…