On Murder

I live in Atlanta. We moved here in August of 2019. It took us a while to get settled in our apartment and in our jobs. We’d been to a number of the big sights but hadn’t really explored the city before lockdown.

On Tuesday, I was in North Carolina helping my parents prepare to move. I didn’t learn about the murders until Wednesday. Two of the spas are less than four miles from where I live.

I had graduated from Virginia Tech nearly a decade before the April 2007 massacre there. I was teaching in an elementary school, and I didn’t learn about it until evening. Back then, before widespread smartphones, school could be inside a bubble. We had internet access, but fewer devices, and we were discouraged from checking the news during the school day, lest we inadvertently share something that would upset the children.

That night I was at home. I was trying to print out some paperwork and my printer wouldn’t work, so I went to the public library. When I logged into the computer, I was directed to a news page, where the headline grabbed my eye.

It was painful to read about. It was painful to see pictures of bodies being wheeled out of Norris, a building where I’d had classes, and to see students shellshocked and weeping in places I knew well. I emailed several professors—people who had nurtured me and with whom I kept in touch—expressing my sorrow and outrage. I wanted them to know how much I cared about them.

On December 14, 2012, I had worked late. Ed was working even later. I stopped at a Macaroni Grill on the way home to eat a quick dinner. I learned of the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School from the TV behind the bar. The bartender turned up the volume and we watched together in horrified silence.

The station cut to an interview with a gun rights lobbyist. My memory is that he indicated that tragedies like this one were an unfortunate but inevitable event in a free society. I had to stop myself from throwing my fork at the screen.

On September 4, 2015, I was standing in the hallway outside the library welcoming students as they walked down the main hall on the first Friday of the school year. An AP walked by. “We’re going into lockdown as soon as the bell rings,” she whispered. “Don’t let anyone in the library. Tell them to go straight to class.”

A minute later, another AP walked by. He told me to be ready to take all the students who were waiting for their buses to special programs into the library for the lockdown. He entered the library and spoke to the library assistant. I could see them through the windows. They separated and walked from table to table dispersing the morning crowd and sending them straight to class.

A teacher came up to me. “What have you heard?”

“Just that we are going into lockdown.”

“I think there’s been a shooting,” she said. “A robbery at the Safeway.”

She disappeared down the hallway. The office staff were all in the hallway, directing students to get right to class. The bell rang and one of the assistant principals escorted all the kids waiting for their buses to other programs into the library. I directed them into the lockdown hiding places, and another teacher, who had planning that block, helped to keep them calm.

There were about fifty students. I remember that only one student resisted. He was incensed that he would miss any of his time at the science magnet school.

We didn’t know what had happened, and we would sit, frightened and in the dark for some amount of hours—two or three, I think. The students were mostly in the back room and some were in the office. Eventually, I crawled from the workroom to the office, grabbed my laptop off my desk, and then crawled under my desk to check my email.

I knew this was a violation of lockdown procedure, but I had also never known a lockdown to last for hours. There were several emails from administration. There was no active shooter in the building, but they wanted us to keep the kids in place. Admin staff would be coming around to let us know we could turn on the lights, but no one was to leave any classroom for any reason. As I was reading this message, I heard screams from the workroom.

The bookkeeper had unlocked the back door to the workroom. She came through the workroom into the library, walked to the office and—this time—knocked and identified herself before unlocking the office door. We could get up and turn on the lights, but we could not leave the library.

After another hour, I learned what had happened. A sophomore had been shot on his way to the bus stop. The killer shot him in the back as he fled, and he collapsed trying to open his front door. He was rushed to the hospital and died during surgery.

The police located the suspects quickly, and found the murder weapon hidden in a bag of frozen chicken in their apartment. The paper reported that my student had been shot because he was a member of a rival gang.

I don’t know if he was or if he wasn’t. An investigative journalist would later determine that this information came from the gunman and his accomplices and was not corroborated. The police presented it as fact, with no indication of its source, to the news media.

I thought of this a few days ago when I saw a clip of Trevor Noah addressing the carnage in Atlanta. He said something to the effect of, “Why would you believe the suspect’s explanation of his motive? He’s a murderer.”

I was talking to a friend on the other side of the country last night. He asked me, “Is it a known fact on the east coast that Asian massage places sell sex?”

I said I didn’t know. I said I didn’t think so. I told him I had read that some spa workers do sex work to boost their income. I told him I had read that some spa workers—typically women— do sex work when asked because they fear violence from the customers. I said I didn’t know what kind of services the killer had received at any of the spas, but no matter what, his explanation did not engender any sympathy from me.

I mentioned the gunman’s church to my friend, and said I thought it had instilled a sense of shame in him that was dangerous, especially in combination with racism, misogyny, and lax gun laws.

The New York Times published a piece today on the same topic. The author also explored how in many churches, women’s bodies are considered the problem and that women are responsible for preventing men from acting on their desires. I sent my friend the article.

I told my friend it was what I had been trying to explain on the phone—that purity culture could lead a man to have contempt for women who did what he asked them to do.

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