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Cultural alienation and the rootless killer in Vegas

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"Steve was a private guy," his brother said, "That's why you can't find any motive." (Courtesy of Eric Paddock via AP)

It was supposed to illustrate how the shooting was inexplicable; how nothing in this man's life could explain why he would lose his mind and become a mass murderer.

"No affiliation. No religion. No politics. He never cared about any of that stuff," the brother of the Las Vegas shooter said.

It was easy to miss the significance of those words -- to see how revealing they are. Oh, he wasn't a religious zealot or political radical. There go two possible motives.

But if you really listen to those words, they become a possible clue: "No affiliation. No religion. No politics."

This rings an eerie bell if you've been following the dominant social and political trends in 21st Century America.

And similar notes have sounded since the shooting.

The shooter was a gambler. But he didn't sit at poker tables with other gamblers. He didn't roll the dice with cheering compatriots at the craps table. He didn't belly up to the packed Black Jack table or join in the rowdy crowds at roulette. The man played video poker.

"The video poker machines that Paddock played often attract locals who are not seeking the excitement and rowdiness of live poker games," one Vegas blogger wrote. "It is not glamorous, it's not exciting. It's a game of just slogging away. It's methodical and solitary."

If "Bowling Alone" represents the erosion of the civil bonds that make us fully human, what does "gambling alone" represent?

The search for the shooter's motive keeps turning up nothing. The nothing here may actually tell us something, though. This was a man untethered to society. He was unmarried. He was unchurched. He was unrooted. He was adrift.

"Steve was a private guy," his brother said, "That's why you can't find any motive."

Maybe not a motive, exactly, but perhaps we've found a context. The context was cultural alienation, which is the backdrop of so much of America's current tumult.

When trying to explain the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, one local publisher used the phrase "social vacancy." Writer Margot Talbot expanded on the publisher's point: "Many drug addicts, he explained, are ‘trying to escape the reality that this place doesn't give them anything.'"

There's no support structure, no sense of purpose. Other people become abstractions, and thus they are at best means to ends.

Our political story is the same.

Trying to understand how and where Donald Trump was winning early primaries, Washington Examiner Senior Political Analyst Michael Barone concluded: "Trump's support comes disproportionately from those with low social connectedness." Many others found that pattern. Emma Green at the Atlantic wrote a piece, "The Death of Community and the Rise of Trump," in which she showed how "White Americans, especially the young and the working classes, are largely becoming detached from religious and civic institutions."

The bell rings again.

"No affiliation. No religion. No politics."

There's a big difference, of course, between the Vegas shooter on the one hand, and opioid-ravaged West Virginians or alienated working-class Trump voters on the other. The gunman had lots of money. They don't.

Cultural alienation and material poverty tend to go together in America today. The wealthy are more likely to be tied in with lively workplaces, active public schools, and fertile civic life. But maybe that's not as a true for solo real estate investor and video poker player.

Robert Nisbet, author of The Quest for Community, defined alienation this way: "The state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility."

The alienated individual "not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it."

This stamp of alienation showed up over the summer in Charlottesville. The young man there who killed a woman with his car and tried to kill more showed no signs of any connection to any human community. No religion. No politics. No affiliation. He grabbed onto an ersatz identity—white nationalism—and cultivated a hostility towards society.

Even ISIS is leaning more today on alienated individuals — bitter lone wolves it can inspire, from a distance, rather than members that belong.

Alienation and isolation are hardly the only fertile ground for evil. Radical religious sects have become the training ground and breeding ground of terrorists. Sectarian violence has plagued all corners of the world, pitting one clan against another. Powerful institutions can be forces for evil by protecting the powerful and creating perverse norms. Hollywood's scandal today is an instance, as are Penn State's scandal years ago or the Catholic Church's scandal last decade.

But it's hard to deny today, if you look around, that the predominant scandal in 2017 America is the dissolution of civil society. It is leaving millions of Americans as displaced persons in their own land. Most of the individuals do what it takes to get by, even without the support structure community provides. A shocking and growing number turn to drugs and suicide -- bringing about deaths of despair as leading sociologists call them.

And one such alienated individual, perhaps, turned into something far, far worse.

This hunt for a motive has led for us to dig into this man's life, but beyond the money and the gambling and a girlfriend, we've found nothing. And that may tell us everything.

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's commentary editor, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Tuesday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.