All over America, and perhaps the world, people are trying to make sense out of the actions of the mysterious millionaire (we think) gunman Stephen Paddock.
That isn't news. But in a way, the only big news that we have is that there hasn't been any big news since this vision of hell unfolded on the Vegas Strip.
The waiting continues. The one thing mainstream journalists (and their sources) seem to agree on is that the massacre in Las Vegas just doesn't make sense, it doesn't fit into any of our familiar intellectual file folders that we use when tragedy strikes.
Islamic State terrorism? There are debates, but no evidence that has been made public.
Some other form of religious or political fanaticism? Lots of talk, but no evidence.
Massive gambling debts? Ditto. Some kind of mental breakdown, maybe a brain tumor? Maybe science will give us an answer? Maybe chemistry? Paddock was taking Valium, along with legions of other people. So there.
The bottom line: What happens to our minds and hearts if this act turns out to be random and senseless, now that the gunman is dead and cannot explain his actions? What mental file folder do we use then to help us move on, other than the one that says, "Where was God?"
During this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), I defended my statement -- made at the end of my very first Las Vegas massacre post -- that there was a religious element to this event, no matter what. In fact, a massacre with no answer to the "Why?" puzzle is especially troubling, in terms of "theodicy" questions. I said, at that time:
So far, his family is mystified. Paddock had next to zero social-media presence, in terms of what authorities have found so far. His brother said Paddock was not political or religious.
But if the gunman just "snapped," for many readers that will raise a different set of questions. Why did he snap? Was this act random and meaningless, in every sense of that word? If so, what does that say? Yes, people will ask, "Where was God?"
Why? Why? Why? That question is rarely free of religious content.
We really want an answer, don't we?
At the end of the podcast, host Todd Wilken asked me an interesting question: Should the mainstream press be covering -- at least to warn the public -- all of the wild rumors that are zooming around in cyberspace?
To see what he's talking about, check out the cocktail of Info Wars conspiracy theories in the YouTube video at the top of this post. This goes way past the ISIS theories, the multiple gunmen theories:
The Jewish news website The Forward has attempted to address one rumor -- one that starts with statements that Paddock "looked Jewish" -- by talking about it, right out in the open. For example:
Alongside ... familiar hoaxes, a more specifically anti-Semitic conspiracy theory was gaining traction. It claimed that Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate, could benefit from the bloodshed by selling billions worth of security screening equipment.
The unfounded theory formed on 4chan, an anonymous online forum famous for memes, child pornography and Gamergate. Beginning with a cryptic post from weeks ago, commenters formed a theory of Jewish economic control that has spread to corners of Reddit and Voat, two sites with forums dedicated to conspiracies. Like other conspiracies of the internet age, the Las Vegas theory blends centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes with false evidence and a healthy dose of groupthink.
The basic question: Does it provide some sense of comfort to push bizarre theories out into the open and then talk about them?
Some say "Yes." Most police and mainstream journalists have, in the past, said, "No."
But are the rules changing? How do we deal with no information on the ultimate question? As one of the recent New York Times stories put it:
Despite the huge scale of the attack, why Mr. Paddock carried it out remained a huge and haunting question mark, said Steven B. Wolfson, the district attorney in Clark County, Nev., where the killings occurred. He estimated that in “99 percent of the cases,” the perpetrator of a drastic killing offers some kind of justification, however twisted.
“Most of the time, you don’t defend it, you don’t accept it, but you hear the why,” Mr. Wolfson said in an interview on Thursday. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I can’t remember another homicide -- and then you multiply what I’m about to say by 58 -- where you don’t know why.”
Had Mr. Paddock been taken into custody “maybe we would have found out why,” Mr. Wolfson added. “Maybe he would have said, ‘this is the reason why I did it.’ But because he killed himself, we don’t know and it’s frustrating.”
At the beginning, I totally dismissed the Islamic State talk, assuming that false claims of responsibility by ISIS were common. But I kept reading mainstream sources asking questions.
It's clear, at this point, that no hard evidence has been released on that front by authorities. However, read through the tread after this much-circulated tweet by the Times correspondent who has been covering ISIS. I will stress, again, that she stresses that there is no hard evidence, yet, on this angle.
Let's end with this, a massive new Callimachi report, built on three years of work, that ran with this sobering headline: "Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar."
The dateline is from Hyderabad, India, with much of the report -- which has a steady stream of on-the-record sources -- focusing on the ISIS recruiting dance with a young engineer named Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani. The key: There are different levels of ISIS connection with those who commit acts of terror. Rarely does ISIS claim a specific connection, without reason to do so.
This passage is long, but essential. In the end, we are going to need this level of reporting on whatever did or didn't happen with Paddock.
As officials around the world have faced a confusing barrage of attacks dedicated to the Islamic State, cases like Mr. Yazdani’s offer troubling examples of what counterterrorism experts are calling enabled or remote-controlled attacks: violence conceived and guided by operatives in areas controlled by the Islamic State whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet.
In the most basic enabled attacks, Islamic State handlers acted as confidants and coaches, coaxing recruits to embrace violence. In the Hyderabad plot, among the most involved found so far, the terrorist group reached deep into a country with strict gun laws to arrange for pistols and ammunition to be left in a bag swinging from the branches of a tree.
For the most part, the operatives who are conceiving and guiding such attacks are doing so from behind a wall of anonymity. When the Hyderabad plotters were arrested last summer, they could not so much as confirm the nationalities of their interlocutors in the Islamic State, let alone describe what they looked like. Because the recruits are instructed to use encrypted messaging applications, the guiding role played by the terrorist group often remains obscured.
As a result, remotely guided plots in Europe, Asia and the United States in recent years, including the attack on a community center in Garland, Tex., were initially labeled the work of “lone wolves,” with no operational ties to the Islamic State, and only later was direct communication with the group discovered.
While the trail of many of these plots led back to planners living in Syria, the very nature of the group’s method of remote plotting means there is little dependence on its maintaining a safe haven there or in Iraq. And visa restrictions and airport security mean little to attackers who strike where they live and no longer have to travel abroad for training.
Close examination of both successful and unsuccessful plots carried out in the Islamic State’s name over the past three years indicates that such enabled attacks are making up a growing share of the operations of the group, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
I know that this isn't comforting: Sometimes this kind of work takes years to complete.