As investigators piece together the movements and the motive of the suspect in this week’s deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, there’s a fierce debate underway over whether he should face hate crime charges for the attacks that left eight people dea…

(CNN)As investigators piece together the movements and the motive of the suspect in this week’s deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, there’s a fierce debate underway over whether he should face hate crime charges for the attacks that left eight people dead, including six Asian women.
“It looked like a hate crime to me,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said during an interview on Anderson Cooper 360. “This was targeted at Asian spas. Six of the women who were killed were Asian so it’s difficult to see it as anything but that.”
Robert Aaron Long, 21, is in custody in relation to the shootings in Cherokee County, Georgia and the two others in Atlanta.
Long claimed responsibility for the shooting in Cherokee County, where he faces four counts of murder and a charge of aggravated assault, according to the county sheriff’s office. He also has been charged with more four counts of murder, Atlanta Police Department said.
The suspect told police he believed he had a sex addiction and that he saw the spas as “a temptation … that he wanted to eliminate,” Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said.
But Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said it is still too early to know a motive, and Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said the investigation is ongoing and appropriate charges will be brought.
When asked if Long could face hate crime charges, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said everything is still under investigation and that they will allow the evidence to lead them to a logical conclusion.
While FBI Director Christopher Wray said the attacks don’t appear to be racially motivated, advocacy groups have argued that it is too soon to make that determination. And shootings don’t have to be racially motivated to constitute a hate crime in Georgia.
If Long was targeting women out of hatred for them or scapegoating them for his own problems, it could potentially be a hate crime.
The communities and the nation grapple with fear and grief
Flowers have lined the businesses that were the scenes of devastating violence, but as increased hate impacts Asians and Asian Americans, the emotional toll has been felt across the nation.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have more than doubled during the pandemic, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
The violence has surged amid racist rhetoric during the coronavirus pandemic — some popularized by former President Donald Trump. Many Asian Americans have been subjected to vitriol about the “China virus” or the “kung flu” — even those who have never been to Asia.
“Such vicious, unconscionable acts of violence cut at the very core of our country and the values on which it was founded,” former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Thursday. “As we await the findings of a thorough investigation, the critical work to combat the haunting rise of hatred against the AAPI community must intensify with the immediacy this latest tragedy commands.”
During a vigil outside of Young’s Asian Spa on Thursday, Sheriff Reynolds told reporters he came to the candlelight vigil to let the Asian American community know that “we have them in our hearts and our prayers and we’re so sorry for the loss of life.”
A vigil was also held outside of Gold Spa in Atlanta.
President Joe Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff Thursday to honor the victims. Biden also plans to visit Atlanta on Friday to meet with Mayor Bottoms, as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders, according to Georgia State Rep. Bee Nguyen.
Among the issues they will bring up is the concern that the shootings be “taken seriously” and seriously considered as a hate crime against Asians and not dismissed as the suspect having a “bad day,” Nguyen said.
The US Embassy in Seoul also lowered flags to honor the shooting victims, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Rob Rapson said on Twitter.
“Our hearts go out to the loved ones of those we lost and our nation mourns with you,” he said.
What we know about the victims
Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44, were all fatally shot at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County.
Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, was also shot at the spa but survived.
Three more victims were found dead at Gold Massage Spa in Atlanta, and another victim was found dead across the street at the Aroma Therapy Spa.
The names of those four victims have not yet been released by authorities.
Three of the victims were 52, 75 and 64 years of age, according to birth years listed in an Atlanta police incident report.
“We need to make sure we have a true verification of their identities and that we make the proper next of kin notification,” Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said Wednesday.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, deputies were called to Youngs Asian Massage, which is located between the Georgia cities of Woodstock and Acworth after reports of a shooting, Cherokee County sheriff’s officials said.
That shooting left four people dead and one person injured, Capt. Baker said.
About an hour later and 30 miles away, Atlanta police responded to the Gold Massage Spa on Piedmont Road in Atlanta. Police said they found three people dead.
While there, police received another call of shots fired across the street at the Aroma Therapy Spa, where they found one person dead, Bryant said.
Investigators found surveillance video of a suspect near the Cherokee County scene and published images on social media.
Long’s family saw the images, contacted authorities and helped identify him, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday.
“(The family members) are very distraught, and they were very helpful in this apprehension,” Reynolds said.
CNN’s Holly Yan, Amir Vera, Gisela Crespo, Amanda Watts, Stephen Collinson, Audrey Ash, Casey Tolan, Nicquel Ellis, Nicole Chavez, Artemis Moshtaghian, Raja Razek, Jamiel Lynch and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.