A Mainstream Mass Murderer

A Mainstream Mass Murderer

Emerging evidence about the Atlanta shooter paints a picture of young man imbued with distressingly common American ideas about race and gender.

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At a Wednesday press conference Jay Baker, a captain with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia, described the suspect in the Atlanta shootings in sympathetic terms that shocked many listeners. Robert Aaron Long stands accused of the murder of eight people—six of them Asian American women. Many felt that the killings were racially motivated hate crimes.

But Baker put a different spin on it, saying, “He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” Denying there was a racist motivation, Baker suggested, “He was pretty much fed up and at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”

Baker’s dismissal of racism as a factor is particularly hard to credit given his own anti-Asian sentiments. BuzzFeed News reported that in April 2020, Baker posted an image showing T-shirts carrying the slogan Covid 19 imported virus from chy-na. Baker appended a note saying, “Love my shirt. Get yours while they last.”

Baker may be an unreliable judge of racism. But his seeming empathy for the 21-year-old suspect makes sense when we realize that Long is a strikingly run-of-the-mill accused serial killer, someone whose murderous acts spring from distressingly commonplace attitudes toward race and gender.

As more evidence emerges about Long, the picture that comes into focus is of a monster who is also a strikingly ordinary young white American man. The danger of biographical portrayals is that they humanize someone who has committed horrific violence. But there’s another way to look at the same evidence, as showing that the everyday status quo is not innocent but carries with it the seeds of terrible destruction.

Long is a committed Southern Baptist, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States—and second only to the Catholic Church as the largest religious organization in America. He and his family are active members of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga. The bylaws of the church condemn “adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, polygamy, pedophilia, pornography, or any attempt to change one’s sex.”

Like many other white evangelical churches, Crabapple First Baptist has also resisted challenges to white supremacy. Crabapple First Baptist has aligned itself with Founders Ministries, a faction within the Southern Baptist Convention that decries ideas like “white fragility” and critical race theory as “godless and materialistic ideologies.”

The theology of the Southern Baptist Convention deserves attention precisely because all evidence portrays Long as a highly pious young man deeply imbued in mainstream evangelical culture. The Washington Post reports, “As a teenager, Long would stack chairs and clean floors at Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga., said Brett Cottrell, who led the youth ministry at Crabapple from 2008 to 2017. Long’s father was considered an important lay leader in the church, Cottrell said, and they would attend morning and evening activities on Sundays, as well as meetings on Wednesday evenings and mission trips.” A high school yearbook quotes Long as saying, “I really feel like God is wanting me to be a leader in the church.”

Long developed a habit of watching pornography and going to massage parlors once a month, acts which he saw as sinful. A former roommate named Tyler Bayless told the Post that Long “hated the pornography industry. He was pretty passionate about what a bad influence it was on him. He felt exploited by it, taken advantage of by it.”

Long diagnosed himself as suffering from “sex addiction” and went to two rehab clinics to treat his alleged malady. This combination of puritanism and dubious therapy is, once again, common in white evangelical Protestantism. It also connects evangelicals with the powerful therapeutic culture that has long dominated American life.

This notion of sex addiction is part and parcel of a purity culture that blames women for tempting men into sin. The movement to demonize sex work in the name of anti-trafficking is one of the more visible manifestations of this purity culture, which has an influence that extends far beyond evangelical Christianity.

Long’s attitudes towards gender and race were intertwined. Melissa May Borja, a religion scholar in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, told the Post, “Maybe he didn’t intend to harm Asian Americans, but it’s clearly had a disparate impact on Asian American women.” She added, “Considering the structure of labor does mean they probably were more likely the target of a white man dealing with issues of sex and shame. Maybe he saw these women as more expendable.”

Randy Park, son of Hyun Jung Grant, one of the women killed, described the sex addiction as “bullshit,” telling The Daily Beast, “My question to the family is, what did y’all teach him? 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.”

Long’s actions are extreme, but his ideology is not. He simply took the values he inherited from his culture to their logical endpoint. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t see his own actions as racist, since he was reared in church that is defiantly anti-anti-racist. Taught that sex outside of marriage is the equivalent of bestiality, is it really so surprising that he treated sex workers as cattle worthy of sacrifice and slaughter?

The guilt for Long’s actions belongs only to himself. But his way of thinking didn’t spring from an immaculate conception. The desire to “eliminate” temptation by killing Asian sex workers is the culmination of a culture that dehumanizes people of color, dehumanizes women, and dehumanizes sex workers. Long is an outlier only in the extremity of his actions, not in his attitudes and ideas, which are very much part of mainstream society. In Randy Park’s words, it’s time to “take some fucking responsibility.”

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