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The Las Vegas Shooter, Two Years Later

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Paddock. Palast. We sat next to each other at Fernangeles Elementary School, and later at Poly High in Sun Valley, Calif.

Steve was a chess prodigy and a math whiz.

He finally got to use his extraordinary gift to do complex ballistics calculations that allowed him to murder 58 people in Las Vegas in just minutes from a distant hotel window. That was two years ago this week.

Steve should have gone to MIT, to Stanford. He didn’t. For that, he needed Advanced Placement calculus.

If you went to “Bevvie”—Beverly Hills High—you could take AP calculus. Or AP French. We didn’t have AP calculus. We didn’t have AP French. We weren’t Placed, and we didn’t Advance.

According to a state investigation led by Tom Hayden, our high school was placed on top of a toxic dump site. No surprise there.

In Sun Valley, Steve and I were required to take classes called “electrical shop” and “metal shop” so we would be trained to man the drill presses at the local General Motors plant. Or do tool-and-dye cutting to make refrigerator handles at GM, where they assembled Frigidaire refrigerators and Chevys.

And we were required to take drafting. Drafting, as in “blueprint drawing.” We sat at those drafting tables with our triangular rulers and No. 2 pencils so we could get jobs at Lockheed Martin Corp. as draftsmen and draw blueprints for fighter jets.

But we weren’t going to fly the fighter jets. Somewhere at Phillips Academy Andover, a dumbbell named Bush with an oil well for a daddy was going to go to Yale and then fly our fighter jets over Texas. We weren’t going to go to Yale. We were going to go to Vietnam. Then, when we came back, if we still had two hands, we were supposed to go to GM or Lockheed.

And any pretty girl at our high school could always make decent money in Sun Valley, then the porn film capital of America.

Those were the choices we were given. As long as they lasted: After NAFTA, GM shut down and shifted to Mexico.

Our school, and our incomes, didn’t qualify Steve for anything other than San Fernando Valley College. Any dumbbell could get in. And it was nearly free. That’s where Steve was expected to go, and he went, with his big math-whiz brain. And then Steve, with his “Valley” degree, went to Lockheed, like he was supposed to. Then Lockheed shut down plants in 1988. Steve left, took the buyout.

Here’s a little info about the pleasantly named place where Palast and Paddock were bred. Sun Valley is not really a city. It is the anus of Los Angeles. Literally. It’s where the sewage plant is. And the garbage dump. It’s in a trench below the Hollywood Hills, where the smog settles into a kind of puke-yellow soup. Here’s where L.A. dumps both its urine and the human refuse it only remembers when it needs cheap labor when the gusanos don’t supply enough from Mexico. And cheap soldiers for your wars.

The home of “Okies” and Chicanos.

I returned there a couple years ago to see my family’s old home in the weeds. I then walked down San Fernando Road, near Steve’s old home, along the now-abandoned railroad tracks. Today, along those tracks that once led to the GM plant, you see a bunch of busted-up camper-trailers that the union men bought for vacations. Now they live in them.

Photo courtesy of Greg Palast

Land of opportunity? Well, tell me: Who gets those opportunities?

Some of you can and some of you can’t imagine a life in which you just weren’t give a fair chance. In which the smarter you are, the more painful it gets, because you have your face pressed against the window, watching them. They got the connections to Stanford. They got the gold mine. We got the shaft.

But Steve’s brain was too big to end up on the tracks. He lived in empty apartments in crappy buildings he bought, then in a barren tract house outside Reno. I laugh when they say he was “rich.” He wanted to be them, to have their stuff. He got close.

It’s reported that Steve was a “professional gambler.” That’s another laugh. He was addicted to numbing his big brain by sitting 14 hours a day in the dark in front of video poker machines. He was a loser. Have you ever met a gambler who said he was a Professional Loser?

It’s fair to ask me: Why didn’t I end up in a hotel room with a bump-stock AR-15 and 5,000 rounds of high velocity bullets? The truth is, it’s a very fine line and lots of crazy luck that divided my path from Steve’s. I credit my survival to my job, my career—really, my obsession. As a journalist, I have vowed to hunt them down, the daddy-pampered pricks who did this to us, the grinning billionaire jackals who make a profit off the slow decomposition of the lives I grew up with.

Dear reader, please do not think for one minute that I am justifying Steve’s murder spree. He slaughtered coldly, with intense cruelty, destroying lives and hundreds of families forever. If you think I’m making up some excuse for him, then I give up.

But understand this: Just like veterans of the Vietnam War who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder even after five decades, so too losers of the class war can be driven mad by a PTSD that lingers, that gnaws away their whole lives.

Langston Hughes tried to explain it. After the Harlem riots, he wanted to tell you why people would burn down their own neighborhood:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it … fester like a sore? …

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Steve, you created more horrors than your cornered life could ever justify.

But I just have to tell you, Steve: I get it.

Below is a clip from Palast’s documentary “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” in which actor-activist Shailene Woodley and Palast visit the L.A. neighborhood he once called home:

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