Opinion: Dylann Roof and the Ghosts of History

An old hatred finds a new vehicle


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U.S. Attorney’s Office

When someone commits an act of mass murder, most of us feel as strong a need to comprehend as to condemn. That doesn’t mean empathizing with the murderer but finding some toehold in the realm of explanation; why on earth would anyone do something this monstrous?

Dylann Roof defies explanation and comprehension. The sentencing phase of his federal hate crimes trial resumes Monday morning in Charleston. Roof is representing himself. He’s offering no evidence that might persuade jurors not to sentence him to death for his massacre of nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church 18 months ago. Instead, he’s displaying a blinding level of self-pity, arguing in a court filing that it’s “not fair” for jurors to be hearing so much testimony from victims’ family members. In his jailhouse journal, presented as evidence last week, he makes his self-regard even more explicit.

I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed. I do feel sorry for the innocent white children forced to live in this sick country, and I do feel sorry for the innocent white people that [sic] are killed daily at the hands of the lower races. I have shed a tear of self-pity for myself. I feel pity that I had to do what I did in the first place. I feel pity that I had to give up my life because of a situation that should never have existed.

Roof is not stupid. He’s also not crazy, at least in a legal sense. There may be a way to unravel the mental and emotional knot that can lead someone to kill nine strangers who had shown him nothing but kindness, concede that they were innocent, embrace self-pity, and reject both remorse and responsibility (“I had to do what I did”). God only knows what that way is. It doesn’t seem worth the bother.

But reading his journal, you’re struck by a couple of things besides the obvious racial hatred. One is the absence of any personal experience that might have planted the seed in him. Nowhere, either in the “manifesto” found on his computer after the shooting or in the journal, do you find any real interactions with African-Americans, or with any other minority. We know he learned online all of what he imagines he knows. The disconnect from life outside the Internet still jars. “It is hard for me to write about the Hispanic issue because I have little experience to draw on,” he writes. The next sentence: “The bottom line is that they are our enemies, introduce crime and violence into our country, and therefore deserve no place in it.” Q.E.D.

The other is its randomness. I’ve seen and heard his tone before, from middle- and early high-schoolers who have recently discovered how fun it can be to share their budding opinions. If you comb through his scribblings, be prepared to learn that Jews have produced many great works of art and literature yet pose the greatest threat to the white race; that feminism is “bad”; that social services are “evil, sometimes”; that he prefers the 1970s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (“New version was terrible”); and that “I did not do it because of a girl.”

You’re inclined to throw up your hands and WTF it all away until you realize that his leaps of illogic and random observations reflect a life lived largely through search engines. All these scraps of information, misinformation, myths, tribal hatreds, bizarre theories—it’s all floating out there, a DIY reality just a few keystrokes away. It’s where we are in our national politics, in our national life. In that sense, Dylann Roof might be the first fully web-enabled killer, a 22-year-old cipher for whom the murder of nine innocent people in a church was just an addition to a lifelong series of clicks.

The federal Roof trial represented a strange bookend for me. I was in Charleston for the verdict December 15, working as a fill-in for Reuters. It reminded me of another time nearly 23 years ago, when I was asked to sub for another reporter and ended up covering the historic verdict of another white racist compelled to kill people because they were black.

His name was Byron De La Beckwith. He was a World War II veteran, fertilizer salesman, Klansman, and chapter member of a segregationist Citizens’ Council, a group formed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Forty minutes after midnight on June 12, 1963, Beckwith used a hunting rifle to assassinate Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, as he hid in a tangle of honeysuckle vines outside Evers’ home in Jackson.

Evers was 37. He had spent the evening at a meeting of civil rights workers at a nearby church. His wife, Myrlie, discovered him at the door to their home. Evers had dragged himself there after the fatal shot had penetrated his back and ripped through his chest. A few hours before, Myrlie and the children had watched President Kennedy deliver his Civil Rights Address, calling for Congress to enact a law prohibiting discrimination based on race:

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free ...

Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.

A year later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. By then, Byron De La Beckwith had been tried twice for Medgar Evers’ murder. Both trials ended in hung juries. Both juries were made up entirely of white men. During one of them, segregationist Governor Ross Barnett shook hands with the defendant, in full view of the jury, as Myrlie Evers testified about her husband’s assassination.

A generation later, a series of stories in The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson revealed that a state agency had helped Beckwith’s attorneys screen prospective jurors. The District Attorney’s office reopened the murder investigation and found new witnesses. Nearly 30 years after the mistrials, Beckwith again took a seat behind the defense table in a Jackson courtroom. He was 73 now, frail and bespectacled. He wore a Confederate flag pin on his lapel and seemed unsure of where he was.

After the jury of eight blacks and four whites brought him in guilty, and the judge administered his sentence of life without parole, the prosecutors held a news conference outside their office. This is my sharpest memory of that day: Myrlie Evers, by then Myrlie Evers-Williams, a handsome and dignified woman who a year later would become the NAACP’s national chairperson, taking her spot behind the lectern and letting 30 years of deferred jubilation overtake her. “All I want to do,” she said, her voice breaking and fists pumping, “is say, ‘Yea, Medgar, yea, yea, yea!’”

YouTube screencap

Myrlie Evers-Williams after the 1994 conviction of her husband’s killer.

I was standing about 15 feet away. My heart raced. Even at 24, not two years out of college, I understood that I was seeing something extraordinary—not just history but redemption, and justice. It was impossible to witness without sensing that something fundamental was changing in the nation’s conception of itself and its history, that it was finally willing not merely to move past its own atrocities but acknowledge and try to repair them. After all, if the justice system could bury some of the ghosts of the Magnolia State—”Mississippi Goddam,” goddamn it—what couldn’t it do? What can’t be done, and undone? The possibilities on that day, Saturday, February 5, 1994, seemed limitless.

It turns out they were. Not quite two months later, on April 3, 1994, Dylann Roof was born. And not long after he reached adulthood, Roof learned about the Trayvon Martin case, typed “black on white crime” into Google, “and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens.” The CCC is the modern-day successor to the Citizens’ Councils, the civil rights-era segregationist organizations that inspired and embraced the likes of Byron De La Beckwith. The arc of the moral universe is long, and it may bend toward justice. But I would not have imagined in 1994 that it would have to double back and do battle one more time against the old resistance.

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