Las Vegas Mass Shooting Shines Sobering Light On American Political Culture

On October 1, American-born Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers in Las Vegas, Nevada. The attacker opened fire from a room in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, starting at 10:05 PM, local time, killing 59 and injuring at least another 527 individuals. The attack, which lasted less than 20 minutes, was the deadliest incidence of gun violence in modern American history, surpassing the 49 deaths from the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

Subsequent findings and reconstructions of the event have led officials to conclude that the shooter had meticulously planned his attack. A police search of the attacker’s room found 23 weapons, some automatic and some with scopes attached. These weapons, which authorities believe to have been acquired through legal means, were transported to the hotel room in several large suitcases over the course of multiple days. 19 other weapons, including explosives, were also discovered in a search of Mr. Paddock’s car and home.

The site of the attack also points toward pre-meditation. The hotel room was located on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino and included large windows that provided an unobstructed view of the concert below. The room overlooked the plaza where country singer Jason Aldean was performing in front of some 22,000 fans. The size of the crowd created chaos when the shooting started, particularly as many in the audience did not initially understand the gravity of the situation. As concert-goers slowly grasped the situation and attempted to escape the exposed plaza, law enforcement officials undertook a desperate search for the gunman or gunmen. Within minutes, police identified the source of the shooting, and SWAT teams arrived on the 32nd floor of the hotel within 20 minutes of the beginning of the attack. For almost an hour, they got in position; however, by the time law enforcement breached and entered the shooter’s room, Paddock had already killed himself.

The random, yet premeditated nature of the killings shocked a nation that has become increasingly desensitized to the seemingly growing frequency of mass shootings. An outpouring of support for the victims on social media followed immediately upon news of the attack, with many using the “#PrayForVegas” hashtag. Politicians have also weighed in on the attack, first and foremost Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, who declared a state of emergency in Clark Country. In a televised address on Monday, President Donald Trump called the attack “an act of pure evil,” and expressed his condolences to the victims and their families.

As news of the mass shooting developed, political fissures replaced the initial outpouring of grief and solidarity. Very quickly, prominent officials began sparring over the future of gun control, well known as one of the most partisan and divisive issues in American politics. Prominent Democrats pointed to the violence in Las Vegas as proof that current gun legislation is inadequate to protect Americans. In a speech to Congress, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren stated, “We have to have a conversation about how to stop gun violence.” Other Democrats singled out the gun industry, with California Representative Jared Huffman tweeting, “Grim win for soulless gun industry. Gun sales will now soar — from those afraid, & surely from a few who would imitate.  $$ all the same.” While Democrats talked action, many Republicans argued that such talk was for another time. The Trump administration, for its part, echoed this point, making it clear that any calls for gun control legislation would be premature, particularly as the investigation into the shooter and his motives is still underway.

These partisan reactions to the Las Vegas mass shooting laid bare the deep divides in American political culture. Instead of uniting to address the reoccurring issue of gun violence, politicians from both parties took the opportunity to take potshots at the other side. As shameful as these responses may be, they pale in comparison to some of the responses among the alternative media, which often degenerated into outright conspiracy theories.

As news of the shootings unfolded and in lieu of any concrete evidence on the suspect and his motives, many commentators began spinning their own explanations. Online conspiracy theorists of all stripes suggested that the event was suspicious. Some, including the infamous Infowars boss, Alex Jones, claimed that Paddock was a ‘leftist,’ suggested by the fact that the attack took place roughly one hundred years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Jones claimed the shooting was orchestrated by shadowy ‘globalists,’ in order to spark a civil war, while simultaneously arguing that the whole incident was a false flag operation. These views were echoed by right-wing conspiracy groups on Facebook and on 4chan, where users spun theories that Paddock—or some fictional second shooter—was “a far-left loon” and a member of “Antifa,” a controversial self-described anti-fascist group.

Claims that the shooter was an Islamic jihadist also gained some traction among right-wing conspiracy theorists. Wayne Allyn Root, a far-right radio host, tweeted “This is real thing. Clearly coordinated Muslim terror attack. PRAY for our Vegas police. PRAY for victims. VERY bad. Awful.” Shortly after police confirmed that the shooter, Mr. Paddock, was indeed a white male, Root doubled-down on his speculation, stating, “liberals assuming not Islamic terror attack in Vegas. No one knows motivation of killer or “Asian companion.” On day of lone wolf terror.” These unsubstantiated claims picked up speed when ISIS took credit for the attack, stating that “the Las Vegas attacker is a soldier of the Islamic State in response to calls to target coalition countries.” However, these claims remain unproven, as the Department of Homeland Security has denied any credible evidence linking Paddock to the jihadi group. The absence of proof has, of course, not stopped right-wing conspiracy theorists from pinning the blame for the attack on Islam.

The Las Vegas mass shooting has proven itself to be a tragedy on many levels. Not only has it been the deadliest such event in American history, but the indiscriminate nature of the attack has heightened fears that nowhere is safe from these random acts of hate and violence. However, this creeping realization has not brought the United States together and instead has further divided it against itself. Politicians, media outlets, and fringe groups have taken hold of the tragedy for their own political ends. Whether it be pushing for, or stymying, legislative change, or attempting to shift blame onto cultural and political enemies, reactions to the violence in Las Vegas has been disrespectful, both to the innocent victims of the shooting, as well as to the ideals of the country they died in.

Geordie Jeakins
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