On Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced she would seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof. It has not been a year since Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and murdered nine black people as they worshipped. Roof justified this act of terrorism in chillingly familiar language—“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” The public display of forgiveness offered to Roof by the families of the victims elicited bipartisan praise from across the country. The president saluted the families for “an expression of faith that is unimaginable but that reflects the goodness of the American people.” How strange it is to see that same administration, and these good people, who once saluted the forgiveness of Roof, presently endorse his killing.
Dylann Roof’s act stood in a long and lethal tradition of homegrown American terrorism stretching back to the Civil War. The response to this terrorism that the powers-that-be tend to endorse is nonviolence—love, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. The symbol of this approach is, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. One problem with using King in this way is that the actual King had an annoying habit of preaching nonviolence, whether it was convenient or not. Whereas American power generally regards nonviolence as a means of cynically enforcing order, King believed protesters should be exemplars of nonviolence, but not its unique employers.