The killer was a white guy, a Christian by birth if not belief. He was not radical, just a crazed man given the means by the gun lobby to terrorize innocent concertgoers in Las Vegas on Sunday night, shooting to death 59 of them. Stephen C. Paddock was, by all accounts so far, an ordinary American. That is what most terrifies the right.
And so, some on the far right have convinced themselves that Paddock could not be what he seems, what the authorities say he is. They say facts—alternative facts, perhaps—will inevitably reveal the truth, even as mainstream media outlets do everything they can to skewer that reality, so as not to offend the sensibilities of coastal elites.
This is how America grieves and mourns in 2017.
The lack of certitude about Paddock was conveyed by President Donald J. Trump himself, who on Tuesday was asked if the 64-year-old killer could have been a member or supporter of the Islamic State group (ISIS). There is no evidence whatsoever that that was the case, and although ISIS did attempt to take responsibility for the attack, this was almost certainly what Politico called “the terrorist organization's desire for publicity.”
The FBI has said ISIS is not responsible for the attack. Senator Richard M. Burr, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, similarly asserted that "it doesn't seem to have a terrorism nexus."
And if some international organization were directing Paddock, Trump would have surely known as much from the President’s Daily Briefing, which would have given him a clear overview of terrorist activity around the world.
“I have no idea,” the president said.
Many of Trump’s most extreme and vociferous supporters do have an idea. And while they cannot prove that Paddock was at all radicalized, they continue to insinuate that he may have been. They do so in part by calling press reports about Paddock “fake news,” insisting that some other truth is out there—a truth that, presumably, speaks Arabic.
Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo, one of the law enforcement officials who has been leading the investigation into Sunday’s massacre, gave credence to this conspiracy theory during a Tuesday press conference. “You know, did this person get radicalized unbeknownst to us?” he wondered. His statements, as well as those of Trump, have afforded conspiracy theorists all the license they could hope for.
The Twitter feed of Jack Posobiec, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who recently started a pro-Trump political action committee, is a perfect illustration of this strategy, which can be called: Delegitimize and Insinuate. Even though he seems to acknowledge that Paddock is not an ISIS recruit, planting doubt about the veracity of news reports sows confusion and prevents Americans from talking about the one issue the right is desperate to avoid: guns.
“It's clear Paddock was committing this atrocity for a cause,” said loyal Trump surrogate and radio host Bill Mitchell. “Considering the nature of his victims, most likely #Antifa or #ISIS or both.” Tomi Lahren, the Fox News commentator, voiced a similar sentiment: “Media focusing on guns. There's something bigger here. I think there's something more about Paddock and his gf that hasn't been revealed.”
Laura Loomer, another right-wing activist, tweeted that FBI stood for “Federal Bureau of Islam,” suggesting that law enforcement officials were downplaying an ISIS connection. Conspiracy theorist Mark Dice agreed, asserting that the “FBI has covered up mass shooters' motives in the past. They redacted all references to Islam that Pulse night club shooter made to 911,” a reference to the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, in the summer of 2016. That was, until Sunday, the most deadly shooting in modern American history.
The extreme suspicion of federal law enforcement recalls, in some ways, the deadly 1992 raid on Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the following year’s siege of the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas. It is a longstanding fear of the far right that Washington will send its “jackbooted government thugs” to root out Americans whose views didn’t accord with the mainstream—and who protect their lands, and beliefs, with guns. The paranoia, therefore, is not new. Only now it is being fueled by the president of the United States.