atlanta shootings

The Flattening of the Atlanta Shootings

Photo: Chris Aluka Berry/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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There’s a tension that exists in the immediate wake of every mass tragedy. The public yearns for answers, wanting to make sense of the unimaginable. At the same time, little, if any, accurate information is readily available.

It’s a predictable vacuum in which chaos reigns, and sticky narratives can take hold. Such was the case earlier this week, after a 21-year-old man went on a deadly shooting rampage at three Atlanta-area massage parlors, where it appears men could buy sex. Robert Aaron Long is now accused of killing eight people — six of whom were Asian women. He was a customer at at least two of the spas, police said.

Amid a frightening uptick in violence against Asian Americans, the attack was quickly labeled by many as primarily motivated by race. But Long told investigators that he attacked the massage parlors because he was struggling with a “sex addiction” and wanted to eliminate the “temptation” of buying sex. While an alleged mass murderer is an unreliable narrator, others have come forward with stories that corroborated his account — and further reporting has painted a picture of a suspect consumed with religion-fueled shame over his urges. Suddenly, Long’s attack began to more closely resemble a classic type of American mass shooting: one largely driven by loathing of women.

Yet asking who Long hated the most only goes so far. As much as we can ever know the truth about any person’s motivation for violence, the Atlanta shooting likely stemmed from a toxic stew of racism, misogyny, prejudice against sex workers, religious beliefs, and mental illness. (Despite cries to the contrary, mental health is a factor in a significant percentage of mass shootings.) The rush to identify one true motive prevents us from understanding the complexities of a crime like this — and ultimately does a disservice to the victims themselves.

Mass shootings are often misunderstood, and myths about the motivations of the perpetrators, established in the hours and days after the initial event, can linger for years. It’s still conventional wisdom that the Columbine shooters planned their attack as revenge against schoolyard bullies, even though the truth was far more complicated. Many still believe that the Pulse nightclub shooting was a planned attack on the LGBTQ community, despite evidence to the contrary. At the trial of Noor Salman, the shooter’s widow, which I attended, it came out that he appeared to have picked Pulse at random after Googling nightclubs the night of the attack.

The rush to attribute the violence to a single unifying motive obscures the truth. It also creates a splintering of identities, where a victim is defined by their race, their gender, their class, or their job — instead of as a whole being. Investigators should look at all the factors in unison, not stripped apart. As Lisalyn R. Jacobs, an expert on race and gender, wrote to me on Twitter, “We can only fully move forward by acknowledging the breadth of the victims’ identities, not selected aspects.”

I’ve spent years writing about mass shootings, specifically cases in which women are the victims. While perpetrators are driven by different stressors and motivations, many share a feeling of being unfairly wronged by the world. Instead of taking responsibility for the ways in which their lives failed to meet their expectations, they blame others, whether it’s a particular person, an ethnic group, or the government. In their eyes, the violence they commit is justified, since they are righting a perceived wrong. It’s a distorted and dangerous sense of entitlement.

“Everyone wants to understand the one thing that unites them all,” Jason Silva, an assistant professor at William Paterson University who studies mass shootings, told me. “I wish I had a better answer for you. However, the only common characteristic is that they are overwhelmingly male.”

Silva recently finished a study examining 50 years of mass shootings, defined as public acts of violence in which at least four people were injured. In nearly one-third of cases, the perpetrators were motivated at least partially by grievances against women. But in many of those incidents, the shooter’s misogyny and racism were intertwined. The 2014 Isla Vista shooter, for example, was angry at women for not having sex with him, which he felt he was owed. He also harbored racist beliefs. The perpetrator of the 2018 yoga-studio shooting in Tallahassee, Florida, spewed hatred against women and minorities, both of whom he blamed for the sad state of his life. It’s not surprising that these forms of oppression are interconnected; both dehumanize and objectify others.

Asian women, especially those working in massage parlors, face a specific kind of racialized, gendered violence with historical roots. While the Atlanta shooter denied to police that his attack was spurred by racial animus, it likely played a role in his selection of the location of his attack and his choice of victims. Internalized racism may have allowed the shooter to “other” the Asian victims, Silva said, lowering his moral threshold to go through with the attack. “It’s easier for him to target sex workers via the same othering process,” he said.

Prosecutors are now left to wrestle with whether or not to charge the shooter under Georgia’s hate-crimes statute, which would not meaningfully increase his prison sentence, but could have symbolic power. As Irin Carmon wrote earlier this week, prosecutors wouldn’t technically have to choose between race and sex in arguing that his crime was motivated by hate. But in practice, hate crimes prosecutions are generally limited to one identity.

As more information about Long emerges, it is understandable that some will reject his “sex addiction” explanation as a weak excuse for racial violence. The son of one victim called it “bullshit” in an interview with the Daily Beast. “My question to the family is, what did y’all teach him?” he said. “Did you turn him in because you’re scared that you’ll be affiliated with him? You just gonna scapegoat your son out? And they just get away scot-free? Like, no, you guys definitely taught him some shit. Take some fucking responsibility.” The callousness of how police presented the “sex addiction” news, during a press conference in which they framed Long’s actions as the culmination of a “bad day,” has also understandably contributed to the skepticism.

Ultimately, though, it serves everyone to gain a clear picture of this tragic event, and others like it. Understanding what, precisely, leads some people to inflict horrific violence is a grim and often unsatisfying task. But it remains our best hope of preventing such horror in the future — by spotting warning signs and identifying critical moments for intervention. Without an accurate perception of the problem, we’re hamstrung. And when we sacrifice complexity for a simpler story, everyone loses out.

The Flattening of the Atlanta Shootings