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‘He was having a bad day’ | COMMENTARY

Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office speaks during a news conference in Atlanta, March 17, 2021. Baker's briefing on the attacks on Wednesday included an assertion that the accused gunman, who is white, had been having "a really bad day," which many women took as yet another way of excusing violence against them. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)
Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office speaks during a news conference in Atlanta, March 17, 2021. Baker's briefing on the attacks on Wednesday included an assertion that the accused gunman, who is white, had been having "a really bad day," which many women took as yet another way of excusing violence against them. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times) (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

He was having a “bad day.”

So said Cherokee County Sheriff’s spokesman Jay Baker by way of explaining last week’s mass shootings at three Atlanta-area spas. The suspect, a 21-year-old white man whose name won’t be used here, is said to have told police he suffers a sex addiction at odds with his Christian faith. They say he targeted the spas — killing seven women and one man — as a way of removing sexual temptation.

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Apparently, the idea of counseling never occurred to this guy. He couldn’t keep his pants zipped, so women had to die. And, in the current climate, it is hardly irrelevant that six of the eight people, he is charged with killing — one person survived — were Asian women.

“Yesterday was a really bad day for him,” said Baker, “and this is what he did.” It was an odd, sympathy-for-the-devil kind of statement that rang blithely oblivious to the fresh trauma of a gun-scarred nation and, in particular, its Asian citizens. Hearing it, was anyone truly surprised by reports that Mr. Baker once took to Facebook promoting T-shirts describing COVID-19 as an “Imported virus from Chy-Na?” No.

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And in so doing, this putative public servant became part of the problem for 22 million Americans of Asian heritage. For them, this tragedy was the all-too-predictable capstone of a year of elders assaulted on the streets, of a woman spat upon, of a boy sent to the emergency room, a pandemic year in which malice toward Asians — “China virus!” “Kung Flu!” “Wuhan flu!” — was cheered on from the White House itself.

We may reasonably presume, however, that none of those 22 million people will respond by murdering random strangers. In America that has always been a form of problem-solving reserved almost exclusively for white men. And if some Asian person did go to that horrific extreme, it’s unlikely he or she would afterward enjoy the solicitude of some sympathetic cop.

No, you have to be white to get that, i.e., to benefit from the national myopia that causes many of us to conflate whiteness with innocence. One is reminded of reporters who treated the Oklahoma City bombing as if it were America’s first act of homegrown terror, like maybe Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was destroyed by a gas leak. Then there are the people in North Carolina who turned Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph into some sort of folk hero. “Bless his heart,” one woman said.

More recently, there was the initial failure to take seriously rioters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. And even now, weeks after they shattered windows, injured dozens of police officers and even killed one, you have Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson describing the murderous white mob as people “that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement.”

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And so it goes.

Nine years ago, when it was argued in this space that America faced a wave of terror from right-wing white men, the idea was considered preposterous by some. Now it is the official stance of the Department of Homeland Security.

So this myopia, this lazy conflation of whiteness with innocence, cannot continue. It is a luxury America can ill afford. Certainly, every marginalized and put-upon community already knows this, has paid for the wisdom in a currency of tears and blood. But Baker’s misplaced empathy is a red-flag reminder that some of us still don’t understand. The suspect was having a bad day, he says? Poor baby.

Imagine how his victims felt.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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