On one level, the horror perpetrated Sunday night by lone wolf gunman Stephen Paddock, who indiscriminately sprayed gunfire across a country music festival in Las Vegas, defies belief.
Before he took his own life, as a police SWAT team barged into his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, the 64-year-old Paddock murdered 59 people, and wounded more than 500, in what’s now being described as the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
The plain facts of the incident stagger our senses, begging us to ask ourselves what could possess one man to open fire on a crowd of revelers in a town known for its unfettered joy and commitment to hedonism.
At the same time, the way the shooting unfolded, our reaction to it, and the pantomime of responses that followed are tragic reminder that, as a country, we’ve become all too used to hideous acts of violence in our midst.
First there’s the shooting itself - an unparalleled act of terror, that sends screaming people fleeing in every direction, the wounded fall, the dead scattered on the ground.
The police close in. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they catch the shooter. More often than not, the shooter turns the gun on himself - and it’s nearly always a him. Or he perishes in an exchange of gunfire with police.
Suicide by cop. Or just suicide. It never changes.
Eyewitnesses offer their accounts. Relatives express their horror, shock and outrage. We fumble for answers, piecing together the banal details of the shooter’s life.
He’s a loner, we learn. Isolated, we’re told. He was filled with hate or unredressed grievance. Inevitably, someone says, he was always so quiet, that there was no hint of the explosive violence lurking just below the surface.
“We know nothing. If you told me an asteroid fell it would mean the same to me. There’s absolutely no sense, no reason he did this,” Paddock’s brother, Eric Paddock, said, according to The Washington Post. “He’s just a guy who played video poker and took cruises and ate burritos at Taco Bell. There’s no political affiliation that we know of. There’s no religious affiliation that we know of.”
On cable, anchors talk, pundits and experts offer their theories. Some politicians call for new laws. Other say no law on Earth would have prevented the shooter from carrying out their hideous errand.
“I can’t get into the mind of a psychopath,” Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said during a briefing Monday. And since police believe Paddock was the sole shooter, “I don’t know how this could have been prevented.”
If there was anything different about Sunday’s shooting - apart from its mind-numbing scale - it was the trade of one president for another, Barack Obama for Donald Trump.
But apart from that, it was the same sad script. The same predictable dance.
It’s almost as if, as a nation, we have become so used to such spasms of violence that we have become numb to them.
Calls for action fall on deaf ears. They echo, then disappear. Critics of gun-control clamor “Don’t politicize it.” Instead, they offer the empty bromide of “thoughts and prayers.”
Finally, the shooting enters an ever-growing catalogue of tragedy: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, the Pulse nightclub shooting, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Aurora, Colorado.
It’s the same drama. And we all know our roles. And every time, we all lose a little piece of our soul as a nation.
The worst mass shooting in modern American history ... until the next one.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him @ByJohnLMicek and email him at email@example.com.