Opinion

Why the Atlanta spa shooting feels different

The pandemic interrupted America's seemingly endless streak of mass shootings. Will we go back to thinking this is normal?

I learned about what happened in Atlanta the old-fashioned way: out of the corner of my eye, on TV. "We are covering late breaking news out of Georgia tonight," Rachel Maddow said, on a show that was only intended to be background noise before dinner. "And I have to warn you, it is disturbing news, and this is a developing story."

The plummet of the stomach. The jerk of attention to the TV. Then, the numbers: Seven people have been shot and killed. Later, authorities revised the number to eight.

Working in the news, I have followed dozens of mass shootings, to the point that there is a sickening playbook to how these stories unfold. An active shooter situation is followed by the first, shaky estimates at a death toll, which in turn are followed by the announcement that a shooter is in custody or dead (with that information comes the confirmation that he is, once again, white, young, and male). Then comes the outrage, the thoughts and prayers from leaders, and the silent agreement among all parties that this country is horrible and messed up, but that nothing can be meaningfully done to stop the next shooting from happening.

What happened in Atlanta feels different. This time, we have an opportunity to realize mass shootings aren't unpreventable, but a product of our collective making. And, coming off the racial reckoning of 2020, we also have the tools to recognize the specific roots of this case.

Back in February 2020, an employee at the Molson Coors facility shot and killed five of his co-workers before killing himself. Though the story barely made the news — The Week ran a single story about it — the incident would end up being more remarkable than anyone realized at the time, because it was both the first and the penultimate mass shooting of 2020. Other than a man who killed four people in a shooting spree across Springfield, Missouri, on March 15, there were no other mass shootings (defined by The Associated Press as events that leave four or more dead, not including the shooter) in all of 2020 — the lowest number since 2006. Though the pandemic was killing thousands of Americans, it had the grim upside of temporarily putting a halt on us killing each other at schools or concerts or houses of worship.

After the hiatus, then, the Atlanta shooting feels especially raw and shocking. Over the last year, our anesthesia wore off; at some imperceptible moment, we stopped expecting to hear about the next mass shooting. We let our guard down, and in doing so, our capacity to be horrified has returned. We are asking, as we so rarely do, "what happened?"

And so, the details: On Tuesday evening, a man systematically visited three massage parlors in the Atlanta area, where he shot and killed eight people. Six of his victims were Asian, two were white, and all but one were women. The police identified the suspect as a 21-year-old white man (his name was released before any of the victims' were made public). Then, on Wednesday morning, the Cherokee County Sheriffs' Department put out a statement, reporting that the suspect said his crimes were not "racially motivated" but that he "blames the massage parlors for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex." As MSNBC's Hayes Brown points out, that "in fact means it is still about race and power structures, even as his direct motivation was overwhelming misogyny." Additionally, a spa employee who survived one of the shootings reportedly told South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper that the gunman shouted "kill all Asians" before opening fire.

Though the media often has good reason to be cautious about reporting the killer's motives, hedging that the shooting was "seemingly" or "likely" a hate crime, the public can read between the lines. Former President Donald Trump, after all, made a deliberate choice in the early days of the pandemic to wiggle out of the blame for his own gross mishandling of the crisis by pinning the situation in America on China. There is no mistaking Trump's intention, either; he even famously crossed out the word "corona" in one of his March press briefings and scribbled in "Chinese" as a replacement. "He's fueling these anti-Chinese sentiments among Americans … not caring that the people who will truly suffer the most are Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans, his citizens whom he's supposed to protect," Charissa Cheah, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, told The Washington Post at the time.

In turn, hate crimes against Asian Americans spiked 149 percent in 2020, beginning in March and April, BuzzFeed News reports — and experts have reason to believe that the reported number of hate incidents is far lower than the actual numbers. Though racism against Asian Americans is rooted in U.S. imperialism and the nation's historic embrace of white nationalism and xenophobia, and is not a new phenomenon, racist agitators like Trump and Fox News enthusiastically fanned the flames during the pandemic. As Newsweek reports, during a television appearance on Tuesday evening, the former president even repeated his use of a popular anti-Asian slur — within hours of a man murdering six Asian women.

What happened in Atlanta, then, is inseparable from the fact that hatred directed at Asian Americans has been a part of the conversation by the highest powers in America for a year now. The shooter's attack is inextricable, also, from the fact that Asian women in particular have been singled out; since the start of the pandemic, Asian women have reported more than twice as many attacks as men. The shooter, whether conscious of it or not, was emboldened by a national rhetoric that dehumanized Asian Americans, and has resulted over and over again in violence.

Now, importantly, Americans have a brief window to reflect on these factors with lucidity. This time, we cannot ignore the clear link between the rise in racist rhetoric related to the pandemic, and bloodshed. Most especially, there can be no calling this shooting just another inevitability of life in America, as we have so many times before — and in doing so, shrugging that nothing more could have been done.

Speaking last year, criminologist James Densley told USA Today of the seeming respite from mass shootings that "at the moment, we've got this pause, this break that we're in, and that has the potential to really stop this cycle." But he warned that if another mass shooting occurs "and it becomes a big thing again, there's a risk that sort of restarts the cycle all over again."

That's both because would-be and copy-cat shooters might be roused, but also because we, as the public, can once again become complicit in accepting that this is, simply, the way things are in America. Not every shooting in this country is racially motivated, but nearly all mass shootings in America are preventable. And if there's a tragic lesson to be learned from Atlanta, it's that nothing happens in a vacuum.

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