Augusta, GA (WJBF) — In the days that followed what is now the deadliest mass shooting in American history, there have been questions and confusion. It is hard to understand why someone would choose to open fire on thousands of strangers, and it is just as hard for those left behind to face the grief and navigate how to move on with their lives. That is why The Means Report chose to focus this week’s show on searching for those answers, both with forensic psychologist – Dr. Michael Vitacco, and pastor and author – Roger Murchison.
♫ It’s tough just getting up ♫ Throwin’ on these boots and making that climb ♫
[Man] 169 SAM agent, we got shots fired, 415ASO. Route to 91, sounded like an automatic firearm.
[Man] We have an active shooter! We have an active shooter inside the fairgrounds!
[Woman] She didn’t know if she was gonna live or die. I didn’t know what to do. She said, “Where should I hide? “Where should I go?”
[Woman] It literally felt like it just continued for 20 minutes straight.
[Woman] There was a gentleman that was shot and he said, “Can you help me?” And so, I put him in my car and I had like six people in my car, people without shoes, running just to get away.
[Woman] He saved my life. I mean, he shielded me from the bullets.
[Man] Just, them hit the ground. There was a guy in front of us who was running and got shot in his back and he was still running.
[Man] All I remember is, “We have to get the hell out of here.”
[Woman] The bullets wouldn’t stop. It was just like a constant shower of bullets.
[Woman] The shots just kept coming.
[Woman] People just started dropping around us. A lotta dead bodies. A lotta people were just piling on top of whoever, even if they’re bleeding or not.
[Woman] I don’t know his name, I can barely remember what he looked like, but he completely covered me, he covered my face, he said, “I’ve got you.” It’s just truly incredible, a stranger jumping over me to protect me.
[Woman] There are crazy people out there. They shot into a crowd of 30,000 people in a concert. It’s insane.
[Man] Yeah, there was a question, didn’t know how to answer it. And that question was, “Why? “Why did he shoot Mommy?”
[Man] The world has changed. Who would have ever imagined this situation? I couldn’t imagine it. And for this individual to take it upon himself to create this chaos and harm is unspeakable.
[Man] We can’t do anything but celebrate the community coming together today because it’s the only thing that will get us through this tragedy and help our young ones understand that when somebody knocks you down, there’s always many, many more who are there to pick you up and help us get through this difficult time.
Brad Means: Hello everybody, and welcome to this special edition of the Means Report. I’m Brad Means and we appreciate you, as always, spending part of your day with us, a day that comes just about one week after the worst mass shooting in modern US history. And so, we knew the minute this horrible news broke that we wanted to try to do a broadcast this week that put some perspective on the tragedy and maybe, maybe, can give us some sort of understanding as to why things like this continue to occur and how we can cope with them when they unfortunately do. And we have a couple of experts that I think you’ll appreciate over the next 27 minutes or so. First of all, Dr. Mike Vitacco. He’s a forensic psychologist with the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. Dr. Vitacco, I know you have a busy schedule and I know it’s been a very bad week for all of us. Thanks for being here today.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Thank you for having me.
Brad Means: I want to talk to you about why people like Stephen Paddock do the things they do and if there’s anything we can tell from their brains or from interviews with them that might give us a heads-up about that. But before we get to the interview, I want to listen to a comment from Stephen Paddock, the gunman’s brother, right after this incident happened when reporters asked him to tell us how in the world this could occur.
[Man] There’s absolutely no way I can even conceive that my brother would shoot a bunch of people he doesn’t even know! He liked to play video poker, he went on cruises, he sent his mother cookies. He did not own machine guns that I knew of in any way, shape, or form.
[Man] We have recovered 23 firearms at Mandalay Bay and 19 firearms at his home in Mesquite.
[Woman] The gunman purchased rifles, shotguns, and pistols. At this time, none of the guns recovered appear to be homemade.
[Woman] This is a crazed lunatic full of hate.
Brad Means: So, quite the contrast there, Stephen Paddock’s brother saying he was a man who sent his mother cookies, experts saying he was a crazed lunatic. I guess the headline here, Dr. Vitacco, is, unlike some madmen, this isn’t someone who just snapped apparently.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: It’s a lot of planning and preparation, obviously before the murders and even after the murders, including the fact that he had cameras at the door so he was well aware of when the law enforcement was approaching him, and that might’ve actually been the impetus for his suicide.
Brad Means: Okay, so that just makes it even more confusing because if he didn’t snap, sometimes that’s somewhat easier to understand because someone just broke and they did something horrible.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s right.
Brad Means: But if he didn’t snap and he did all this meticulous planning, how come nobody picked up on it?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, we’re gonna learn a lot more, I think, in the next several weeks. I mean, part of the issue here is, of course, is that he did take his own life, so a lot of the questions that we would have or he would’ve answered if he were to be alive, he’s not there to do such things. So, there’s a lotta speculation. And one of the concerns here is there’s gonna be a lot of hindsight bias. We’re gonna look back a lot and say, “Oh, we should’ve picked up on this “and should’ve picked up on that,” when the reality, especially in events that happen so infrequently, that’s very hard to do.
Brad Means: First of all, I want to let the people know what you do. Is your job mainly to talk to people and find out how they tick or is your job, at least in the sense that we’re talking about today, to take the witness stand for attorneys and to let them question you?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Sure, I do a little of both, but my primary job is I see individuals who are charged with crimes who may or may not have mental health issues and then I advise the court on their mental status and their mental health and to see if they are able to go to trial, if they’re able to proceed to trial, or if they were not responsible at the time of their offense because of mental health issues.
Brad Means: Are there any common threads running through most criminals? Are they people who have, as we read, been rejected or people who have had some sort of something bad befall them?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, I mean, and some of that is clearly true. I think one of the things we know from some of these individuals that we’re seeing now who commit such heinous acts is that there’s clearly a lot of anger, that they have a lot of revenge and they tend to hold onto things very long. And sort of that combination of things often culminates in some of these actions.
Brad Means: What are some of the questions that you ask or what are some of the ways that you can determine what’s really going on inside someone’s mind instead of a criminal trying to just answer your questions and deceive you?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, one of the ways we do that is exactly how we’re talking now. We look at evidence, we look at police reports, we look at videos, we look at the evidence leading up to the crime, during the crime, and after the crime. So, some of the things we see here, for example, is his purchasing of all these firearms, his scoping of hotel rooms. It looks like there might’ve even been a plan before this that he looked at. The placing of the cameras. All these things in combination, again, seem to suggest someone who, at least on many levels, was very planful, was very meticulous and didn’t just snap and maybe wasn’t that mentally ill at the time of the offense. I think many of these things still have yet to be answered.
Brad Means: From a criminal’s point of view, from a madman’s point of view, what does doing this resolve for them? How does it make them feel better?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, they’re extracting their revenge on people that they feel have somehow wronged them.
Brad Means: How could a crowd of concertgoers have wronged them? And I’m sure, in his mind, he could answer that question.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Sure.
Brad Means: How’s he feel that the concertgoers wronged him?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: I think some of that needs to be answered. I don’t think he directed that at anybody. I think he directed it at society in general.
Brad Means: Okay, so they represented society.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: If we’re speculating, that’s a possibility.
Brad Means: Sure, sure, and I know that the specifics of this case, as you mentioned, still have yet to come out. Can people be fixed? Have you find that, through your interviews with the bad guys of the world, that they can change their ways if you get to ’em before things go too wrong?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: I mean, we use general terms like that, but the earlier you can catch these things, the earlier you can catch maybe a child before they get into adulthood. The research has shown that there’s a lotta possibility that interventions, therapeutic interventions, can have a positive effect. Now, with this gentleman again, there’s a lot to yet be learned and there’s many things we don’t know. We heard his brother talking about how he was quote-unquote a normal guy. He worked in employment. So, he’s probably not someone who would’ve shown up on anyone’s radar.
Brad Means: So, these things are going to happen again. I had a guest not too long ago tell me they are, they are the new normal. I mean, if you can’t even tell that somebody is about to lose it, then America and the world can expect more where this came from, right?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, there’s gonna be more attacks. And we have not just seen that in our country, we even see it overseas, where, of course, there’s very strict gun laws, but they have still found ways using vehicles now and various devices to cause a lot of devastation and havoc toward people.
Brad Means: As parents, as caregivers, how can we tell if our child might be about to go down a dark path?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, I mean, I think it’s very important, of course, a lotta psychologists will tell you that, to keep communication lines open, to be positive with them, to talk with them on a daily basis, to be aware if they’re being bullied or if they are the bully-er. And I think both of those things have very negative consequences for the future. Those things are very predictive.
Brad Means: Is abuse of animals a big warning sign still? That seems like something we see on TV a lot.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: I think it continues to be a warning sign. Abuse of animals, bullying, these are things we would look for in children who might have psychological problems that could later on develop to have even greater problems in the criminal justice system.
Brad Means: Can violent tendencies at the level that we’re witnessing here be inherited?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s a question that really hasn’t been very well-answered, but probably not. And here’s the thing we have here, and this is what I’m seeing here as a good thing, these events, despite the fact that they’re becoming more common, still don’t happen all that much. So, we’re looking at a very low base rate event, a thing that happens very infrequently, which also makes prediction very difficult.
Brad Means: You mentioned that sometimes the attacker is taking out his or her frustrations on society, hence the large random crowd of concertgoers. Does the killer ever perceive themselves as receiving a reward through martyrdom or through suicide? In other words, does their mind ever go to the afterlife and say, “I’ll do this, I’ll kill myself, “and people will remember me”?
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, we certainly see some of that martyrdom in terroristic attacks that have some religious overtone. That necessarily does not seem to be the case here. He may have committed suicide just because he didn’t wanna be caught. He may have committed suicide so he didn’t have to answer all these questions. A lotta things there we don’t know, but it doesn’t appear that religious issues and martyrdom was the reason in this case, although it certainly is in some other cases.
Brad Means: I think the scariest part of our entire interview has been that Stephen Paddock could be sitting at this table right now for a psychological evaluation and you or other experts in the field might not pick up on anything.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s exactly correct.
Brad Means: Well, we appreciate you giving us some insight into what you do and I appreciate what you do.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Thank you, sir.
Brad Means: And I do thank you for your time, Michael, very much.
Dr. Michael Vitacco: Thank you for your time.
Brad Means: Absolutely, Dr. Michael Vitacco, forensic psychologist at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. What a wealth of resources they have down there at AU for us. When we come back, how do we handle all this from a grief standpoint, especially something that nobody saw coming? How can we as a society and those victims and survivors as individuals process Las Vegas? When we come back.
Brad Means: Welcome back to the Means Report everybody. Brad Means with you as we try to understand Las Vegas. And as we try to put perspective on it, we can only imagine what the people who were impacted directly by it are going through, the grief that they’re feeling come at them like a tsunami right now. So, how do they and we get through this? Dr. Roger Murchison is an expert on grief. He is a longtime Augusta minister, the associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Augusta for many, many years until his retirement, and noted author. His book is called Guide for Grief and we’ve had Dr. Murchison on before to talk about this book, and I appreciate you coming back to not only talk about the book some more but how it might be able to help us understand this process. Thanks.
Roger Murchison: You’re welcome, Brad, glad to be here.
Brad Means: So, grief is a natural thing. It happens when someone dies. But start us off by helping us understand how this type of sudden grief is different from, “My grandmother passed.”
Roger Murchison: Yeah, tragic and sudden grief is different, Brad. And most of us, of course, remember September 11, 2001, our most tragic event in America. When sudden grief happens, most grief experts say there’s no anticipation. Anticipatory grief is when we know that grandmother’s gonna pass away, has a terminal illness. And so you get prepared, you get your psychology, your thoughts, your process, you get your home ready. But in a situation like this, you’re at a music concert in Las Vegas and no one is prepared for that. And so, the first thought is denial. The first thought, “This can’t be happening.” And so, most people who are in that process, as a matter of fact, when you saw the news reports that you give, most people thought this was a part of the show.
Brad Means: They did, they thought they were fireworks or something.
Roger Murchison: Exactly, exactly.
Brad Means: Well, is there some sort of, after that acceptance kicks in, any sort of guilt? My thought is for the families of the deceased, for sure, but what about those who walked away from that concert unscathed or injured only? What do they carry with them as far as grief goes?
Roger Murchison: Yeah, survivors usually have a lot of issues with which to deal. And most of the time, it starts off with the issue of guilt or blame. And also, anger is a major part of grief. And the thought of it is if you don’t deal with grief, grief will deal with you, and sometimes it is not very pleasant. And so, people who’ve gone through situations like this have to recognize, “I am grieving and I must work at this “and think about how do I deal with grief?” And then the first issue is know that this did happen. Quit denying that this didn’t happen, “That my loved one is gone, I now need to process this,” and that’s a difficult thing to do at times.
Brad Means: Does time heal all wounds?
Roger Murchison: Not necessarily. For some people who think, “If I can just walk away from that, “if I can rake it under the carpet,” give grief some time and maybe it’ll go away. I counseled with one friend of mine whose mother had died 30 years before and she was still angry, and it presented itself in some very ugly ways.
Brad Means: Those who are grieving often lament the fact that there was unfinished business, that if only we had got engaged sooner, if only we had taken that trip we had planned. How do you get past that part and realize that business will remain unfinished?
Roger Murchison: One of grief expert mentors was Dr. John Claypool. And he says, “In death, we always run out of time. “If I had one more moment, one more week, “one more month, one more year, I would have.” And so, what we must do is be grateful for the time we had. What Dr. John Claypool said when his daughter died of leukemia at 11 years of age, he decided, “I could be angry, I could say, ‘Why me, why her?'” It took him a while, but he finally said, “The road out of grief is gratitude, “that I ever knew her at all.”
Brad Means: So, are you a big proponent of tell people you love ’em, hold your family close, hug your children because you never know?
Roger Murchison: For sure, yeah. Whatever you think is important in life to you, be about it today. Who’s guaranteed tomorrow? Not a one of us, Brad. And so, the issue is those things we think are important in life, we should be about involving ourselves in the life of our children, involved in the community, involved with the church. Whatever you value, that’s the thing you should be moving toward because grief is like drinking water and breathing air. We grieve every day about something: loss of health, loss of job, your children go off to college, empty nest, which is not always all so bad, empty nest.
Brad Means: There are bright spots.
Roger Murchison: Yeah, there are bright spots. But we grieve all the time. So, the issue isn’t can I make it go away, the issue is how do you deal with it? How do you respond to it?
Brad Means: Speaking of children, what do we say to them? And at what age can you say, “Yes, a man killed 58 people in Las Vegas”? We don’t wanna scar ’em.
Roger Murchison: Well, in the book I’ve written, there’s a chapter called Mourning Children and Children Mourning. How do parents bury their children? It’s outta the cycle of life. Remember the old movie, Lion King, when the little lion had to say goodbye to the big lion, the father, that is the normal cycle of life, the song goes on. But when a parent buries a child, that’s unnatural. That’s outta the cycle of life. And so, parents have a more challenging problem with grief. It really exacerbates the grief process. And I always encourage parents to, one, there are rituals they need to go through. They need to remember. Maybe put a book together. The issue isn’t always why this happened, because we all can’t answer the why questions. We should say, “What do I do now? “I can’t bring my loved one back, what do I do now?” And what we do is appropriately grieve and appropriately say goodbye. And I think when we do that, our grief then can become productive. It’s not that you shouldn’t grieve, the issue is grieve appropriately.
Brad Means: Are there unhealthy ways to grieve?
Roger Murchison: Well, many people do get stuck in what I call grief, in a cycle of grief. There are many phases and stages, and they’re not linear. Many people say, “Denial and depression “and anger and bargaining and then acceptance,” but these are not one-two-three steps, they’re cyclical. You tend to move through cycles of grief. And you may be angry at the beginning. Like right now, people could be angry at Stephen Paddock because of what he did, angry at the Mandalay Bay hotel because they didn’t have enough security and should’ve found all those weapons, angry at the doctors because they didn’t heal my son who had the gunshot wound, angry at the security guards at the concert, weren’t enough security guards. And so, we always wanna wag our finger and cause blame, and there may be some blame, but the issue is that doesn’t bring them back. And so, it’s not the why, it’s, “What do I do now with these feelings?” And the unhealthy way to grieve is to not recognize these feelings and either work on yourself or get help. If you had a broken arm, go into an orthopedic surgeon and get it fixed. If your heart is broken with grief, you may need to go to a professional and get some help.
Brad Means: One thing that’s frustrating to me is I think we can get through this if we can understand it, but I just had a forensic psychologist sit here and say, “Sometimes, you don’t understand “why people do these evil things.” And if you can’t understand why it happened, how can you ever get past it?
Roger Murchison: Well, that’s why I push people past the why question, Brad. If you keep asking why, why, why, it’s usually a one-way road to nowhere. And you’ve gotta ask those questions. People have gotta ask, “Why did this happen? “Why was I there? “Why did my son or daughter be in the line of fire?” But usually, there’s no satisfaction with why questions.
Brad Means: You have to move past that.
Roger Murchison: You have to move past that to the what question, “What do I do now?”
Brad Means: My final question, in just about 30 seconds, can any good, can any benefit come from Las Vegas?
Roger Murchison: You’ve already seen it. One person said, “I looked at Sin City “and what I saw was saints.” And that I think, Brad, is what’s happening here is you saw these heroes coming out and the testimony of these people. And I think what it says, when I saw signs in Las Vegas said, “Pray for Vegas, Vegas Strong,” then you’re seeing a transfer, you’re seeing a change, and that brings hope.
Brad Means: Dr. Roger Murchison, the book is Guide for Grief. Your expertise is deeply appreciated. I’ve learned a lot today and I hope our viewers have as well. Thank you.
Roger Murchison: You’re welcome, Brad.
Brad Means: Welcome back to the Means Report. As we have spent our half-hour remembering Las Vegas and trying to understand it all, I hope this broadcast has been beneficial. We always appreciate you tuning in. Levi, Marlena, and the entire Means Report family are grateful to you. And Dr. Roger Murchison, the grief expert, reminded me of the words of Horatio Spafford when he wrote, “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well, “it is well with my soul.” This has been a tough lot for everybody and I hope that we can move beyond the orb of grief together. Have a good week.