What do we do with Dylann Roof?

Dylann Roof hasn’t said very much. While on trial for killing nine black churchgoers in South Carolina, he didn’t take the stand to defend himself. After he was convicted, he chose to represent himself during the sentencing, and again, said very little. He provided no evidence in his favor, and his closing argument yesterday took just a few minutes.

What he has said, though, is chilling. Last week, he assured the jury that he is completely mentally competent, that what he did was not the result of some deficiency or defect. He’s said more than once that he does not regret what he did, that he has shed no tears for his victims. He’s also acknowledged that the people he murdered were, in his words, “innocent.” He should know – they welcomed him into their church, talked to him, prayed with him.
When I was younger, I concluded that perhaps the only piece of morality that all humans ever have and ever will have in common is the notion that it is wrong to kill innocent people, and that all conflict around this issue stems from disagreement about what it means to be “innocent” or “people.” But in no society, ever – even the most vile, backwards ones – is it morally acceptable to kill those deemed “innocent” and “people.” This often prevails on an individual level as well. When people hurt each other, we scramble for justification, not only in the context of the law, but so that we can go on to sleep at night. Dylann Roof’s words fly in the face of this concept, and he seems to be sleeping just fine.

He’s also showed no regret, not even the artificial kind that could have saved his life. In fact, he hasn’t expressed much interest in saving his life. Reports from the courtroom claim that Roof’s benched attorneys were openly frustrated with his lack of interest in objecting to anyone or anything, and his apparent indifference toward taking advantage of his legal rights. It’s like he knows that what he did was wrong, and that he should regret it, but he continues to claim that he’d do it again, without actually making an argument for why. This too, is an otherworldy phenomenon. Our classical examples of evil don’t even align with this. Even the most despicable tyrants have defended their villainy. And the most vicious dictators have sought to preserve their own lives.

Our imaginations cannot produce a person who, in their right mind, would think and act, and continue to think and act, like Dylann Roof. When we encounter characters like this, our clinical minds jump to some sort of delusion or illness, which doesn’t excuse behavior but certainly explains it. That’s all we need – an explanation. We can move on from even the most unspeakable evil when we begin to understand why it happened, even if there’s no way we could have stopped it, and even if we can’t prevent it from happening again. Giving irrational wickedness a clean cut diagnoses provides us with just enough dark comfort. So when Roof claims, and the court affirms, that he is mentally competent and not suffering from some sort of defect, our paradigms fall apart.

I’ve been paying close attention to the trial of Dylann Roof, and it’s left me in a kind of existential stupor. The things I thought I knew about humans and how we act have been shaken. I’ve been waiting for some grand (insufficient and deplorable) explanation, and have been left disappointed. I’ve also gotten the sense that I’m not alone in this. The twisted silver lining here is that this collective inability to understand and come to terms with Dylann Roof means that we really have no concept of evil in itself, because it’s so grotesque. Even so, I don’t know what to do with that.

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