Of all the people sentenced to death in the United States, Dylann Roof may be among the ones this planet will miss the least. He offered his North Carolina court and jurors no remorse or reflection for the vicious, pre-planned, racially-motivated murder of nine kind, generous people who welcomed him into their church with open hearts. And some of the statements I have heard from my friends on the left side of the map is that, while they “don’t believe in the death penalty,” this sentence offers some modicum of justice or vindication to black and brown people.
I couldn’t disagree more.
My perspective on this is likely skewed by the fact that I spent many of my formative years in a country in which the motivation of suicide bombers, who kill themselves along with innocent citizens–women, children, elderly people, folks of various ages, occupations, and walks of life–is a subject of daily debate. What we know for certain is that shahids acquire mythical notoriety after death, glorified in myths of heavenly rewards and propelling others to follow in their footsteps.
In that respect, I think Dylann Roof got exactly what he wanted from the criminal justice system. This is not a vindication of the Justice Department, as the New York Times argued yesterday. Sentencing a self-represented man to death after he deliberately refuses to mount an effective defense, and boasts of his murderous acts to the jury, is not a victory. It is a capitulation. It awards Roof his utmost wish: to become an unrepentant martyr for other murderous racists to worship and follow.
In my work on Yesterday’s Monsters, my book in progress, I look at correspondence between lifers and people on the outside, a small minority of which think that the heinous murders that landed their pen pals life without parole is “cool.” The subjects of my study have written books and articles and argued before the parole board that there is nothing they abhor more than these followers. But even though some like the attention, a living inmate is largely that: a curiosity. I am reminded of Charles Manson’s failed marriage, that petered out as a sick curiosity. No, a dead perverse hero is much better than a living, incarcerated one: a dead one lives on in glory in the twisted minds of his followers, while a living one is reduced to a dishonorable and diminished existence at the mercy of his jailers, marred and shrunk over time by age and sickness.
It is distressing to us, and especially to families of victims, when the state is manipulated into being lenient toward someone who is perceived to deserve punishment. I submit that it is far more distressing when the state is manipulated into being complicit in an act of violence so that its proposed victim, who orchestrates the violence, emerges as a victimized, lauded hero of “the system.” For that reason alone, if for no other, the death penalty should be abolished. Even, and perhaps especially, in cases such as Roof’s, in which it can only lead to the amplification and glorification of hatred.