The bitter alchemy of a hate crime.
The terrorist who killed eight people in Atlanta was motivated by racism AND misogyny—all weaponized by easy access to a gun. We need to talk about ALL of it.
This week, a terrorist killed eight people at three different Asian-owned and operated spas in Atlanta. Struggling to make sense of the heinous act, we were left to ask a seemingly simple, but devilishly complex, question: “Why do people do evil things?”
Was it racism? Was it misogyny? Was it ready access to a gun? The answer is yes. All of it. Because here’s what it’s not: an isolated event. This is a singular moment when all of these evils combined in one terrorist to take eight innocent lives, but each of these causes alone have been destroying lives and livelihoods in America well before this massacre.
The massage parlors the terrorist targeted were Asian-owned—and six of his victims were Asian American women. This murder spree is only the most glaring in a sea of incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year. Indeed, Stop AAPI Hate counted nearly 3800 anti-Asian hate incidents. And make no mistake, these incidents didn’t materialize from thin air. They were motivated by an unending barrage of racist hate speech by former President Trump and his supporters conflating SARS-CoV-2, which emerged in China, with Asian identity.
Every tweet calling it the “China Virus,” or “Kung Flu” contributed to a permission structure for hate and violence—dehumanizing Asian Americans and denuding them of the respect and dignity they deserve. That is the direct through line between the dehumanization of Asian Americans and the murder spree in Atlanta. So yes, the terrorist was driven by anti-Asian hatred.
But that’s not all. When something is too commonplace, you sometimes forget it’s there. We are, after all, far more primed to pay attention to the uncommon than we are the common. Think about the operative part of the word news—if it’s not new, it doesn’t command attention. And tragically, misogyny is nothing new. It shows up when we tell women they are responsible for mens’ behavior--victim-blaming them if they are attacked for “arousing” a man’s “temptation.” The terrorist told law enforcement that he targeted spas because he associated them with “temptation,” something he clearly equates with women. Implicit in equating women with temptation is their objectification—their dehumanization. And when a woman is dehumanized into a sexual temptation rather than another living, breathing person, it contributes to the permission structure of violence against her. So yes, the terrorist was driven by misogyny, too.
The terrorist who committed this attack walked into a gun shop that morning and bought the gun he would use to murder eight people by nightfall. In America, it’s easier to access a gun than it is in any other country in the world. There are 1.2 guns per person in the US. For perspective, in Yemen, where social order has been decimated by the ongoing US-funded civil war, there were less than half as many.
Sure, it’s true that people kill people. But they usually do it with a gun. And more guns means more people killed by guns: In 2018, for example, there were nearly 14,000 homicide deaths by firearm. In Canada, there were 249. That translates to more than 6 times as many gun homicides per capita. So yes, this murder spree is part of a broader epidemic of gun violence in America.
Like all human behavior—particularly extreme behavior—the terrorist’s motivations were complex and manifold. His actions were racist. His actions were misogynistic. His actions occurred because he had access to a gun he shouldn’t have. All true. None less so for the others.
His evil actions were ultimately the bitter alchemy of all of these.
This terrorist wasn’t simply a “troubled man.” Excusing him that way also excuses us out of the responsibility to contend with the bigger issues at play—not just one, but all of them. And we have to do the work of rooting out all three. We need to take on the anti-Asian hate that took these lives, and harmed those of at least 3800 other people this year alone. We need to take on the misogyny that dehumanizes women across the country—whether through domestic violence or unfair working conditions or murder itself. And we need to change our gun laws to limit the gun access laws that facilitate the violence that robs thousands of their lives every year.
If we’re serious about going beyond “thoughts and prayers,” we’ll do all three.