Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: What madness is this?

It's hard to think and talk of politics on a morning like this, because .... really, what madness is this?

What madness drives a person to turn an upper-story hotel room into a sniper post and proceed to murder more than 50 of his fellow human beings, out of the blue, for no reason? People who had threatened no one, harmed no one, people who were spending a Sunday night enjoying music and each other in a communal celebration, only to be shot down as if they were no more consequential than targets in a carnival shooting gallery?

The mind balks when asked to process the callousness and randomness of such violence -- it simply seems inconceivable. Yet police officials in Las Vegas tell us that somehow, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nev., not only conceived the act but carried it out with a brutal, life-stealing efficiency.

And as shocking as the news surely is, it is not at all unfamiliar, is it? Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Orlando and now Mandalay Bay.  In 1999, it happened here in Atlanta when 44-year-old Mark Barton, a failed stockbroker, went on a spree that killed 12.

It didn't used to be like this; now it is. And as human beings, the rational part of our mind then wonders what could have changed to produce the phenomenon, and how we might recapture this ugly part of ourselves and return it to Pandora's box.

Has this capacity for indiscriminate slaughter been there all along inside our fellow man, needing only the opportunity that has come with the availability of weaponry to execute it? Or is the apparently overpowering urge to murder innocents, and on a large scale, itself something new, the horrific byproduct of modern culture and media interacting in a new way with the raw material of human nature?

It's something to keep in mind as we confront the related phenomenon of terrorism, which we perceive to be killing with at least a purpose, however mangled that purpose might be. You have to think that at least for some, terrorism becomes a convenient cover, an excuse, for the urge that they already feel to wreak such havoc. The alleged political content of such acts may not be the true impetus for the violence, but merely the excuse seized upon by a teetering mind. It gives permission.

It is also true that in every war that was ever fought, there have been those who enjoyed it too much, those who found liberation and purpose, rather than duty, in that permission to be violent. Maybe, without knowing how, we have inadvertently extended that license into the civilian world, to the level of the individual. And without knowing how we did so, we also cannot know how to reverse that process.

For future reference, it's worth noting that as a person who shares a gender, racial background and vintage with Stephen Paddock, I can feel not at all implicated in his crime, not at all pressured to disassociate myself from what is automatically presumed to be his individual madness. It is a privilege that would not be extended to others had the killer been a Muslim, or a young black man, or an immigrant. It's a reminder that all the answers to all the questions that we have on mornings like this can probably be found in what we have in common, not in what makes us different.

And if that scares you even more, well, maybe it should.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.