Dylann Roof Is An American Problem

The Charleston church shooter needs his sense of control, just as America needs to believe the death penalty provides a form of absolution.

He sought no forgiveness, and asked for no mercy, and on a chilly January afternoon in Charleston, South Carolina, he was sentenced to death.

Roughly 18 months earlier, Dylann Storm Roof, a white supremacist carrying within him the usual cocktail of hate and intent, had walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. He emerged from that holy place a mass murderer, after killing nine people at their Bible study. He was found guilty on all 33 federal counts brought against him by the state, and nine of those 33 were for hate crimes resulting in death (one for each life extinguished). For ending the lives of those black churchgoers — the oldest was his senior by almost seven decades, the youngest only a few years older than the hate-filled gunman — Roof was given the greatest penalty a jury can hand out. When it came to their sentencing deliberations on January 10, the jury took only a little longer than the two hours they’d taken to find Roof guilty the month before.

“There's nothing wrong with me psychologically,” Roof had been careful to assert in his opening statement for the sentencing phase. So the jury treated the evidence they’d seen with that in mind.

Time to die.

When I tweeted out the sentence meted out to Roof, my Twitter notifications were full of people grimly satisfied. “Justice has been served,” read a couple of replies. Others were more or less written sighs of relief. You could almost hear the air whistling through lungs and out of people’s mouths. “Finally,” read one. The italicised emphasis is mine, but the sentiment belongs to the tweeter.

How do Americans feel about the death penalty in 2017? In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it’s been since the early 1970s. In cases where there is a murder conviction, black people (a mishmash of overlapping identities included, naturally) are more opposed to the death penalty than any other group: 63%, as opposed to 35% of white people. And in the same survey, only 29% of black people favour it (the lowest of all the surveyed groups), contrasted with 57% of white people. There is no doubt that this particular punishment has not been wielded fairly over the last few centuries. Disproportionately, the death penalty has been…bad for black people. For people whose experience of the system has been marred by gross miscarriages of justice, the death penalty comes dressed in a cape of unease: After all, we've read the best-selling books, and we’ve watched the movies based on those books. The broad black opposition to the death penalty is fueled on some level by the knowledge that what has condemned Dylann Roof with the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, is also what has filled death row with condemned black men and black women, sometimes on shaky premises.

For people whose experience of the system has been marred by gross miscarriages of justice, the death penalty comes dressed in a cape of unease.

Roof’s guilt — almost cheerfully admitted in the FBI interview that followed after he was arrested and brought into a police station — was never really in doubt. He said he did it; survivors said he did it; the surveillance video outside the church provided images to support it; the federal lawyers built a watertight case with the plentiful evidence. Indeed, in the opening statement during the guilt phase in December, Roof’s attorney David Bruck said he expected the jury to find his client guilty. For this crime, in everyone’s mind, he was the guy. The only guy. All of the heart-wrenching testimony from victims’ families and the meticulous, fiercely detailed work from the government lawyers was not exactly in vain. But it was in service of another goal: a penalty of death to match Roof’s guilt.

There are people who are fervently against the death penalty. I am one of them, coming from England, where the last state execution took place almost two decades before I was born, in 1964. It is barbaric, opponents of the death penalty murmur, an Old Testament sentiment out of step with a post-post–New Testament world. But the conviction of Dylann Roof reveals, within this group, a section of folks who cannot muster up the enthusiasm or energy to condemn the decision in this case. The crime is too great, is the (un)whispered consensus. Certainly, a life (taken by the state) for nine lives snuffed out (by a terrorist) is not a fair tradeoff. Even rudimentary mathematics tells us that one ≠ nine. But there is a greater power when it is the state that swings the ax. The death of Dylann Roof, whenever it takes place, will be a careful act — more careful, even, than a planned mass murder by one citizen. The heft of the law is weightier.

There have always been conversations about the worth of a black life as compared to a white one. Is a state-sanctioned killing—so often the unfortunate destiny of black men and women in this country since its conception—the answer to a terrorist massacre in a historic black church? Perhaps, perhaps not. The lines are easy to draw here: black and white; a hate crime steeped in America's greatest sin, carried out against innocent churchgoers on a site of historic black importance; life and death.

Dylann Roof wanted the jury — and by extension, the world — to know that this was not a crime of passion. Despite the bullets that had wound up embedded in the floor and in walls of the room where the victims had been assembled, he had been in control. Those 11 bullets he pumped into 87-year-old Susie Jackson? That wasn’t a frenzy you might want to associate with a mentally incompetent person. In his opening statement, Roof told the jury, “My lawyers forced me to go through two mental competency hearings.” In his journal, he had written: “Also I want to state that I am morally opposed to psychology. It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.” In his closing statement days later, Roof’s words were almost defiant in showcasing his lack of remorse. “Anyone who hates anything, in their mind they have a good reason,” he told the jury. In a “you’re the real racist!” narrative switcheroo, he said: “The ones who hate me have been misled. Anyone who thinks I’m filled with hate has no idea what real hate is.” So Dylann Roof needs his sanity. It’s part of how he sees himself. It’s also a lucid metaphor for this crime, and its place in the continuum of American identity.

What will it mean when Dylann Roof dies by the state? Forget the possible martyrdom other white supremacists get to bestow on him — what would it mean for America? Dylann Roof is an American problem. His death may seem akin to excising a tumour — a clean and decisive move so the rest of the organism can thrive. But what if the whole damn body is riddled with disease? Cutting out the one part is not doing anything about the rest of the ailment. In the rush to call Dylann Roof every name under the sun (an evil monster in a borrowed human suit, essentially), there is a subtle rejection of the idea that he is more common than is comfortable to think about. To reiterate: Dylann Roof is not a Dylann Roof problem – he’s an American problem. And to constantly reject this, to isolate him as a one-off — until the next one-off, of course — does us all a disservice.

There is no real fix when potential Roofs are walking around in towns and cities across America, largely unexamined and unchallenged. 

In writing about the Dylann Roof trial shortly after the guilt phase, I brought up the relative ease of Roof’s existence as a white person in America. Bringing up and exploring that privileged ease does not take away from the absolute heinousness of his hate crime. It was never supposed to. In fact, it serves to further highlight just how grim the crime is. But bringing up his whiteness as a gateway into the acts he committed seemed to be something people were not quite willing to accept. For those people, Roof was merely “evil” and that was that. Killing him, then, was a sure fix for that evil. The ultimate fix. Only there is no real fix when potential Roofs are walking around in towns and cities across America, largely unexamined and unchallenged.

To kill Dylann Roof is to erase him utterly, and the social contract demands that we commit to it fully. Because if he is gone, we can pretend that his crime was a freak alchemical accident, not a horrific but logical end point for a narrative that has been in evidence for hundreds of years, and is now enabled and strengthened by a number of factors in the modern era. What also gets erased is culpability — how institutions and society at large maintain the kind of status quo that fuels the hate Dylann Roof had been carrying for so much of his young life, for example — as well as the chance to engage, and to bring about a real reckoning.

Close to the one-year anniversary of the massacre, Sharon Risher, the daughter of Ethel Lance, wrote an essay about her mother, and her mother's murderer, Dylann Roof, saying: “I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for the man who killed her.” Speaking after the sentence had been delivered was Melvin Graham, brother of another of Roof's victims, Cynthia Hurd. He sounded exhausted as he told the assembled press that the sentence was a “very hollow victory, because my sister’s still gone. I wish that this verdict could’ve brought her back.” He went on to add that the sentence would send a message to others harbouring similar sentiments. “I just want this to stop. I really do.” he said. His voice breaking, he added, “I’m tired.”

But this is the beginning of a very long road for the families of the victims. The state of South Carolina has yet to commence its own case (Roof has been indicted on 13 counts, 9 of which are for murder) and is seeking the death penalty as well. The start date for the state trial has been postponed twice so far. For now, Roof can still appeal his federal trial sentence, and if he does within the two-week window, that long road will acquire more branches. Even if the appeal comes to naught, the death of Dylann Roof may still be years away. The families will live not just with their grief. They will be subjected to Dylann Roof periodically, for as long as he lives, and after he is dead. This is an ongoing ordeal.

The story of Charleston is the story of America — the county courthouse, completed in 1792, was designed by Irish architect James Hoban, who went on to design the White House. A two-minute walk down the street from Mother Emanuel brings you to the unmissable statue of John C. Calhoun, a statesman and the seventh vice president, now best remembered for being a staunch defender of slavery; the street both he and the church reside on is named for him. America lives with itself by hook or by crook.

In the aftermath of the murders of the Emanuel 9, the trial of Dylann Roof, his conviction and his sentencing, the reality is that no one gets to fully move on. Not the survivors, and not the families left behind. But America gets to mark the case closed, rubber-stamp it, and file it away.

The cracks remain beneath the surface. The fissures keep growing.

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