OP-ED: Atlanta mass shooting stirs the toxic, apocalyptic stew of America after Trump, COVID-19
We don’t know if Robert Aaron Long — a 21-year-old man who boasted on social media of his love for pizza, God and guns — was in the pews at his Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia, on Sunday morning, about 55 hours before he murdered eight people, including six Asian American women, in a killing spree across metro Atlanta.
If the Georgia gunman had gone to his church on Sunday, he would have heard his pastor, the Rev. Jerry Dockery, warn his flock not about the earthly traumas of a pandemic or a deeply divided America, but about something much more dramatic: The imminent arrival of Jesus Christ, accompanied by a violent apocalypse.
According to a now-deleted video of Dockery’s sermon viewed by The Washington Post, the Baptist minister said Christ would sweep away those who’ve rejected him. “They have no power before God. Satan himself is bound and released and then bound again and banished. That great dragon deceiver — just that quickly — God throws him into an eternal torment. And then we read where everyone — everyone that rejects Christ — will join Satan, the Beast and the false prophet in hell.”
On Tuesday, this young white male couldn’t wait any longer to bring hell to three separate spas, populated by female workers of Asian descent, that sheriff’s deputies claim the shooter blamed on what he believed was “a sex addiction” that conflicted with his years of Bible study at the Milton church. Even before a cop’s highway maneuver crashed the killer’s car en route to Florida — where he allegedly planned more violence — and Long was arrested without a shot, the nation’s worst mass killing of 2021 (so far) was fast becoming a Rorschach test for how we view America and its many social ills.
Brutal indictment: No matter what the murderer babbled to sheriff’s deputies about his tangled motive, the lethal targeting of so many Asian American women and the justifiable fear that the killing spree has spread through that community has prompted a long overdue national conversation about the alarming spike in hate crimes that have targeted the Asian American community after Donald Trump and like-minded pols and pundits branded COVID-19 “the China virus” or even “Kung flu” to cover their own failings.
Indeed, it’s a brutal indictment of our warped political culture that this discussion didn’t start months ago, when a 19-year-old ran up behind 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee on a morning walk through his San Francisco neighborhood, knocking him to the ground and killing him, or when a woman coughed on a Pacific Islander speaking her native language in a Dallas mall and told her, “You and your people are the reason why we have corona.”
Those are just two of thousands of anti-Asian crimes that have been documented by groups such as Stop AAPI Hate and which have spiked dramatically since Trump refused to apologize for calling the coronavirus “the Chinese flu,” as the COVID-19 death toll mounted and politicians looked for a convenient scapegoat. The last couple of days of back-and-forth over whether or not the Atlanta murder was motivated by racism — with white sheriff’s deputies striving to keep it out of the conversation — have been a ridiculous red herring. A serious, searing conversation about racism toward Asian people in America should have started decades — no, centuries — ago, without having to do a brain MRI of a warped white young man who deliberately pointed his weapon at women of Asian descent.
But while I do believe the Atlanta mass murders have everything to do with racism in America, I also think we need to look beyond the appalling problem of anti-Asian violence and ponder how the shooting spree stirred up a toxic stew of only-in-America pathologies, as well as our wider cultural angst that has only metastasized since COVID-19 killed more than 500,000 of us and shut down wide swaths of the U.S. economy, and since our ever widening political divide inspired Trump’s craziest supporters to mount an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Violence against women: For one thing, we also need to talk about how many mass killings by young white men in America either start with, or ultimately result in, violence against women — regardless of race — as well as the cruel irony that the Atlanta killings happened in the same week that 172 House Republicans attempted to block renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which Congress allowed to lapse in 2018 and which has been unable to overcome opposition from the National Rifle Association to language aimed at keeping guns from the hands of abusive boyfriends.
Speaking of guns, how outrageous is the ease with which Long was able to walk into a suburban Atlanta sporting goods store and walk out the same day — under Georgia’s no-wait gun laws — with the 9 mm piece he could use to act out his violent fantasies, and yet that the current filibuster rules mean the divided Senate won’t even take up commonsense gun legislation like expanded background checks?
And will we overlook the opportunity to scrutinize the social structures that produce rageful, unsocialized young white males without college or good-job opportunities, which more often manifests itself in problems like opioid addiction or even suicide yet also devolves into a mass shooting every few months? Is it possible to have a racial reckoning and address a legitimate crisis among today’s youth at the same time?
Still struggling: The Atlanta shootings weren’t just a wake-up call about addressing racism. They were also a reminder — in a time of some optimism that a more compassionate White House and a wide pendulum swing on economic policy will address some of the nation’s systemic inequality — that there are still massive cultural chasms and serious social ills in America, and that we are still struggling to find our footing after a year of death and disease, with democracy on the brink.
I learned of the American carnage down in Georgia in an unusual setting — upon returning to my motel room in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in the dead center of a heartland state that’s long been a bellwether of our national politics. I’d taken a couple days to do some reporting for my upcoming book on a deeply divided America and the role that our increasingly dysfunctional system of who goes — or doesn’t go — to our insanely expensive colleges has come to play in causing that split.
Late Tuesday afternoon — the same time the shooting spree in Atlanta was starting — I walked aside a picket line in Gambier, Ohio, with more than 100 student workers at one of the nation’s priciest liberal arts schools, Kenyon College, who were staging a one-day strike after the pandemic taught them that, despite the idealism inside their classrooms, at the end of the day higher ed in America is just another big business. Then I raced just five miles into the heart of overwhelmingly pro-Trump Knox County to attend an unorthodox church service inside an auto garage where a dozen not-mask-wearing ultra-conservatives listened to an hourlong part-sermon, part-harangue that the nation that had rejected the 45th president but embraced abortion or movements like Black Lives Matter could now expect the wrath of a vengeful god and his apocalypse.
One year after COVID-19 turned everything upside down, Gambier’s youth were marching toward a radical future and Mount Vernon was clinging by its fingernails to the harsh judgments of a Biblical past.
This is America in the first, tentative months of 2021. The nation has one foot planted in the hope of weekend bank deposits and vaccinated arms, and the other foot rooted in the fears of a violent Armageddon like the one that flickered across our screens on a Tuesday night. If our nation’s latest mass shooting taught us anything, it was a reminder that the United States has problems that can’t be papered over with a $1,400 check. The issues of systemic racism and sexism, a gun culture on steroids, and a politics that values cataclysm over comity won’t be solved in one election cycle, but with hard work and renewing our vows in democracy and in real education that works for all of our youth. Right now, that’s a tough Sunday sermon that not enough Americans are willing to sit through.
— Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.