On Tuesday night, authorities reported that a mass shooter had gone on a rampage in the Atlanta area, targeting three massage parlors and spas in the process. The shooter, Robert Long, killed eight people, including six Asian women.
The news was met with an outpouring of grief on social media Tuesday, with many placing the shootings in the context of the escalating rates of anti-Asian-American violence over the past year in the wake of the pandemic. But in a press conference the day after, law enforcement officials from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office attempted to dispute that the attack was a hate crime against Asians, drawing widespread ire on social media and inadvertently demonstrating the lengths to which people in this country will go to justify, or even excuse, the reprehensible actions of a white man — particularly one whose victims were marginalized members of society.
“It’s still early, but he does claim that it was not racially motivated,” Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said of the shooter during the March 17th press conference. “He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations [massage parlors] as something that allows him to go to these places and — it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” Baker later attempted to shed more light on the shooter’s motivations: “He was kind of fed up and at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”
It’s important to note that there is a good reason for Long to lie about his motivations: Hate crimes tend to carry with them more aggressive charges and lengthier sentences, giving him plenty of incentive to downplay the racial aspects of the attack. But by telling the media the attack did not appear to be racially motivated, Baker, intentionally or not, erased the complex and interlocking issues of racism and misogyny that could exist at the heart of the attack.
Further, by emphasizing that the victims allegedly “tempt[ed]” the shooter, law enforcement officials made the women complicit in perpetuating what they referred to as the shooter’s “sex addiction” (which is, in itself, an extremely controversial and medically dubious diagnosis that has been rejected from the DSM). Officials were then also able to downplay any perceived racial biases behind the attack, while simultaneously underscoring another aspect of the victims’ identity — the fact that they allegedly did sex work — in a way that deprived them of their humanity. (In a statement, Mayor Kesha Lance Bottoms declined to comment on whether the victims were sex workers, stating that to do so would be to engage in “victim-blaming,” a turn of phrase that sex workers pointed out implies that those who do sex work deserve violence to begin with.) In downplaying the racism and misogyny that was probably at play here — while simultaneously emphasizing the victims’ professions — law enforcement officials likely failed to recognize that they were painting a portrait of, and implicitly justifying, another type of hate crime altogether: a hate crime against sex workers.
Atlanta area officials say the suspect claimed the massage parlor shootings were not racially motivated but that he wanted to ‘eliminate’ locations he saw as ‘temptations’ for his sex addiction pic.twitter.com/8IDp2Ijkv6
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) March 17, 2021
Our culture has a long history of making excuses for men who commit heinous acts of violence. It’s evident in police’s wariness to refer to white male mass shooters as domestic terrorists, as was the case with Las Vegas mass shooter Stephen Paddock, who was initially referred to as a “lone wolf” by the sheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department despite killing 58 people and injuring more than 500 others. It’s evident in our insistence on depoliticizing the actions of men like UC Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 killed six people and injured 14 others and left behind a racist and misogynistic manifesto stating his motive was his inability to get a girlfriend. In media coverage of the shooting, Rodger was referred to as an “incel,” thereby shifting the conversation from how poisonous patriarchal values pose a material threat to our safety to how important it is for introverted nerds to get laid (it’s also evident in how a small segment of the far-right continues to venerate Rodger to this day).
It’s evident in the endless stream of profiles and interviews with friends and family members of the violent insurrectionists at the Capitol, as if finding out someone is a loving husband and father somehow negates the fact that they showed up to Washington, D.C., chanting racist slogans and hoping to overturn democracy. And it’s evident in our appetite for true crime, our insatiable yen to learn what drives otherwise “polite” and “respectable” young men like Ted Bundy and Robert Chambers to commit violence against women and other marginalized members of society, without acknowledging the myriad small ways in which polite and respectable young men are taught to view women and marginalized members of society as disposable.
Time and again, law enforcement officers and the media make a concerted effort to explain or justify the violent actions of white men, without affording this privilege to BIPOCs, as evidenced by brutal police treatment of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters compared to their relatively laissez-faire response to pro-Trump protesters storming the Capitol.
Over and over, we try to place their actions in a framework we can understand, that makes sense to us, that shifts the blame to a convenient scapegoat: to women who are overly sexually available, to women who are not sexually available at all, to 4chan and 8kun and all the other vectors of online radicalization, to religious shame, to groupthink or mob mentality. Better to do that than to confront the daunting truth: That there is no one reason why someone fosters enough hate in their heart to take a life or many lives, but many contributing factors that cause that hate to grow — and that they are all around us.