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Activists in the Asian-American community argue that a hypersexualized view of Asian women in the United States leads to their abuse and exploitation. They point to this cultural tendency as a factor when Georgia shooter Robert Aaron Long shot dead six Atlanta spa workers of Asian descent and two other victims on March 16. (Sveta27, Adobe Stock)

After 21-year-old Georgia shooter Robert Aaron Long on March 16 admittedly murdered eight innocent people in Atlanta, including six female spa workers of Asian descent, the overarching question was, as it always is in mass killings, “Why?”

But, according to police interviews with Long after he was arrested, the suspect crystal-clearly admitted why: He was wrestling with sex addiction, and spas represented “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” according to an NBC News report. And he added that race had nothing to do with it.

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Atlanta murders suspect Robert Aaron Long. (Heavy.com)

Although one should be skeptical of any mass murderer’s bald assertions, both could be true: Sex shame and rage, not race hatred, very plausibly could by itself have been the trigger of this horror, especially if Long’s conservative religious upbringing is factored in. And, yet, both motivators certainly could have been at play simultaneously.

However, activists in the Georgia Asian and Pacific Islanders ethnic community wave that carnal “temptation” claim away, convinced the primary motive was racism against Asian women, stemming in part from a history of nearly two centuries of discrimination in America but also lingering hostility against Asians after former President Donald Trump’s chronic blaming of the coronavirus pandemic on China. Trump variously tagged Covid-19 “Kung Flu” and the “China virus,” because it first emerged in China.

“Killing Asian American women to eliminate a man’s temptation speaks to the history of the objectification of Asian and Asian American women as variations of the Asian temptress, the dragon ladies and the lotus blossoms, whose value is only in relation to men’s fantasies and desires. This is horrifying. Stop fetishizing us,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

As such, Choimorrow contends, misogyny against Asian women constitutes a “very specific form of sexism,” far different from normal dismissing of the dignity of and the sexual exploitation and abuse of American women in general.

But we should also listen to Mr. Long’s assessment, if law enforcement fairly described his statements in interviews with him after the murders at three separate massage parlors in Atlanta.

For an apparently guilt-ravaged guy like Long, his life was a perfect storm of potential for what happened on Tuesday. He grew up a fervent devotee of the Southern Baptist Church (his father is reportedly a prominent lay leader), a conservative evangelical denomination that demonizes sex and deeply shames congregants who fail to follow its rigidly chaste and oppressive sexual canon (which, coincidentally, also historically cleaved toward white supremacism).

Author James A. Haught (Blasphemy for Thinking People, 2019), a long-time journalist in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, where Baptists are dominant, recently wrote in the Daylight Atheism blog that whereas mainstream Protestantism “faded to a small fringe of American life” some time ago, Catholics and evangelicals, including Baptists, have only recently begun a steady slide from prominence nationwide. He asserts that the Southern Baptist Convention lost 200,000 members in 2014 and 200,000 more in 2015.

“I’ve watched the retreat of religion for six decades,” writes Haught. “Back in the 1950s, church-based laws were powerful: it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. All public school classes began with mandatory prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail, or look at nude photos in magazines, or buy a lottery ticket. It was a crime for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. If a single girl became pregnant, both she and her family were disgraced. Birth control was unmentionable. Evolution was unmentionable. It was a felony to terminate a pregnancy. It was a felony to be gay. One homosexual in our town killed himself after police filed charges. Even writing about sex was illegal. In 1956, our Republican mayor sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place.”

This was the kind of religiously oppressive, sex-shaming environment that Robert Aaron Long grew up in in Milton, Georgia, where he religiously attended quaintly named Crabapple First Baptist Church. Long fervently embraced the Baptist creed and godly goodness in his youth, those who knew him say.

Long was “always into God,” according to one of his high school classmates, who was interviewed by The Daily Beast:

“He was very innocent seeming and wouldn’t even cuss. He was sorta nerdy and didn’t seem violent from what I remember. He was a hunter and his father was a youth minister or pastor. He was big into religion.

It is not known whether Long was still a regular member of the Crabapple church when he went on his killing spree in several Atlanta area spas, which he reportedly “frequented.” But the Sunday before the rampage, Rev. Jerry Dockery, the congregation’s pastor delivered an apocalyptic sermon, the Washington Post reported:

Christ was coming soon, Dockery said, and the world must be ready.‘We’ve had, what, 45 presidents in our brief history as a nation? How many other kings around the world? How many other rulers have sat upon thrones, claiming to be in charge?” he asked. ‘The King is coming again.’

“When Christ returns, Dockery said, he will wage war against those who have rejected his name. There is one word devoted to their demise,” the pastor said. “Swept away! Banished! Judged.

A 2017 Psychology Today article warned that American youth was ill-prepared in general to deal with real-world sexuality when they encountered it.

“An entire generation of people are encountering crippling sexual shame and pain as they wrestle with their sexual desires and interests, in a world for which they were unprepared. For decades, sexual education in the United States and elsewhere has been shaped and influenced by moral and religious forces,” wrote the author, David J. Ley, Ph.D.

Long reportedly had previously received treatment for his alleged “sex addiction,” which isn’t viewed as an official medical problem, but it apparently didn’t take. It’s easy to see how, in his debilitating, fundamentalist guilt over not being able to control his lusts, he very well might have shifted blame for his own sin-soaked sexual struggles to the Asian women who accommodated them at the spas he visited.

Doesn’t seem nearly enough to trigger the slaughter of eight innocent people.

But there was another trigger for the clearly troubled young man. The day before he unleashed mayhem on the Asian community in Atlanta, his parents kicked him out of their house.

 “[P]olice and a friend who talked to the Washington Post say Long, 21, had been kicked out of his parents’ home the night before the attack. Per their accounts, Long’s parents had become fed up with his obsession with sex, which led to him viewing porn for hours online and visiting the massage parlors, which have been rumored to offer sexual services,” the online site Newser.

Whether lust viewed by the perpetrator as a ticket to damnation, race hatred or familial rejection drove Robert Aaron Long to murder eight people, in a sense the motivation matters little immediately. Innocent people are now dead and each of their families is suffering mightily nonetheless, along with the entire U.S. Asian-American community.

But in the long term, we need to far better understand what drives Americans to commit such heinous acts. And one of the first things we should investigate is the potential role of religion.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...