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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Biden, Harris react to killings that pump grim new facts into eruptive issues

A candlelight vigil in Chinatown in Washington, D.C.,

A candlelight vigil in Chinatown in Washington, D.C., on March 17 honors the eight people killed in the Atlanta-area spa shootings. Credit: For The Washington Post / Astrid Riecken

After the horrific Atlanta-area spa slayings last week, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris changed their agenda for a planned visit to Georgia. They'd been due in the state as part of a "Help is Here" tour promoting the massive COVID-19 relief package Biden signed after hard-fought congressional approval. Instead, they scheduled a meeting with representatives of the Asian American community that clearly has shaken by the shootings.

Reaction to the latest violence reflects the national political backdrop in several ways.

Late last year, Georgia became a new partisan battleground despite its traditional image as a solid-red state. Both U.S. Senate seats in the state went Democratic, giving Biden's party a surprising if minimal majority in the upper house. Ex-President Donald Trump broke with Republican leaders there. The place is an electoral crucible, making it a special magnet for political coverage.

The issue of race, meanwhile, feeds a more visceral concern than the locations of the carnage.

By police and news accounts, the white gunman identified as Robert Aaron Long had issues related to sex, religion and addiction. But whatever his toxic mix of motives, six of the eight people he is charged with killing were women of Asian descent. And nationwide, attacks on Asian Americans had already been spiking for some time. Earlier this month, an analysis of reported hate crimes in 16 major cities showed that while such incidents in 2020 decreased overall by 7% amid the coronavirus pandemic, those targeting Asian people rose by nearly 150%.

This is of special note at the White House because the previous president's finger-pointing may well have had a destructive impact.

Last February, the World Health Organization urged people to avoid terms such as the "Wuhan virus" or the "Chinese virus," fearing a backlash against Asians. Trump couldn't be bothered to consider that. On March 16, 2020 — one year before the Atlanta-area shootings — Trump first tweeted the phrase "Chinese virus." Researchers tracked that single posting to an avalanche of tweets using such phrases as hashtags, according to a study from the University of California at San Francisco.

In this context, Biden on Friday sought to reverse the trend of White House rhetoric, and reiterated his call for the U.S. House to advance the proposed COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.

No discussion of bias goes unaccompanied these days by consideration of policing. On this front, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office made an unforced mess of public relations.

Describing the gunman's motive to reporters, Baker, a department spokesman, said of Long: "He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did." Then it turned out that Baker had Facebook posts promoting T-shirts that called COVID-19 an "IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA," echoing Trump's pronunciation.

Gun laws also draw attention, again.

Authorities said a 9-mm firearm was found in the car Long was driving when he was arrested after a chase. It was the only weapon they said they found. Long legally purchased a gun from Big Woods Goods in Cherokee County last Tuesday before the shootings, Matt Kilgo, an attorney for the store, told Newsweek.

Georgia has no waiting period for such purchases.

So the life-or-death issues of 2020 extend into this year with new bursts of attention on gun control, hate crimes, mass shootings, mental illness, police procedure and virus-blaming. It is too soon to know if the new administration will be able to show a tangible impact on these perennial matters.