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What was going on in the mind of 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long on March 16 as he sat in his car for an hour before entering Young’s Asian Massage northwest of Atlanta?
Police say he was depressed about a “sex addiction” and confessed to killing eight people that day, six of them of Asian ancestry. Beyond that we know little, but that didn’t keep both professional journalists and social media users from throwing around accusations.
Six days later, a shooter marched into a Boulder, Colo., supermarket and gunned down 10 people. As we write this, less than 48 hours after that rampage, we know little about alleged gunman Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa’s motives—but that lack of information didn’t stop -pundits from presenting other easy answers.
Let’s start with the Georgia tragedy and its sad facts, including these: Four dead at Young’s, including two Asian women. Long then drove into Atlanta and allegedly killed three Asian women in Gold Spa before heading across the street and killing one more Asian woman in Aromatherapy Spa.
The news spread fast. Hours after the shootings, my Twitter feed was full of anger that assumed motive: “The man who assassinated 8 Asian Americans will likely be deemed a lone wolf in the media. He is not. He is what America produces on the regular.” Another: “Stop. Killing. Asians. Stop. Killing. Asian. Women.”
The first reports from the mainstream press also suggested that the racial and ethnic identity of the perpetrator (white) and most of the victims (Asian) told the whole story. Many journalists seemed to be going with a standard script: America is racist.
Then a second-day story emerged. Police said Long admitted to frequenting Gold and Aromatherapy. They said he denied a racial motivation and was trying to remove sexual temptation. Journalists pivoted to a story of a Southern Baptist church member struggling with pornography and seeking treatment at HopeQuest, a Christian addiction facility. That fit into a second preexisting script about repressed evangelicals.
Then others trotted out a third preexisting script: This is what men do. The Associated Press quoted Shannon Watts, founder of the gun-control group Moms Demand Action: “Toxic masculinity is truly a problem in this country.”
A fourth preexisting script dominated second-day coverage of the Colorado nightmare. We learned that Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa is a naturalized U.S. citizen, originally from Syria. He was convicted of assault in 2018. His family told reporters he suffered from mental illness and delusions. But the first hot takes on that shooting centered on demands from the left for gun control, and pushback from the right that we need more armed citizens, not fewer.
What are some takeaways for Christians thinking through these tragedies?
First, avoid the hot take. Christians especially should be slow to speak. People are complicated. Explanations that focus only on external factors of race, gender, ethnicity, or legal requirements may miss the motivations that animate individual human beings. The Bible teaches that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
Second, engage the heart behind the hot take. Many people saw the Atlanta shootings as a hate crime because some Asian Americans have experienced verbal and physical abuse influenced in part by resentment over COVID-19’s origin in China. Asian Americans also saw the shooting as part of an unjust stereotype, with some white men viewing Asian women as submissive and exotic vessels they can pay to have sex with. The shooter could have targeted other spas: Why did he choose these Asian-run ones?
Third, each of us should assess how we react to news like this. For example, Christians should be willing to reexamine the ways some churches and evangelical groups talk about sex and purity culture. Conservatives should be willing to consider whether tweaking laws without trampling the Second Amendment can prevent some people who shouldn’t have guns from obtaining them. Journalists bear heavy responsibility and need ample curiosity. Those who are sure of the answers before they ask questions are propagandists, not reporters.
Fourth, Paul tells us in Romans 12:15 to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” If our Asian brothers and sisters are weeping, we should weep with them. Pastor Eugene Cho tweeted after the shootings, “To my fellow Asian community: I am so sorry. It hurts so much. … We see you, love you, need you.” We should say the same regarding our Colorado brothers and sisters.
Ecclesiastes has it right: This is a time to weep, mourn, and embrace. Other times will come.
—with reporting by Michael Reneau