Will Executing Dylann Roof Fuel White Supremacy?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That would be a cruel irony, of course. In response to Ta-Nehisi’s new piece on Dylann Roof, reader Tim Tyson at Duke University makes a great point about martyrdom:

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers here a profoundly candid and well-considered critique of the Justice Department’s decision to pursue the death penalty for Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston in the name of white supremacy. It is indeed bizarre for a nation that applauded the generous spirit of the families of Roof’s victims in forgiving him to then turn around and execute him.

While it is inarguably true that governance itself entails some willingness to resort to violence, whether to defend or subdue the citizenry, and that violence may sometimes prove necessary to civilization, the death penalty is not unavoidable violence, but rather a chosen reliance on vengeance in the name of the nation. This vengeance is also implicitly in the name of the victims and their families. When both the nation and the families of the victims have indicated their rejection of vengeance, it seems particularly inappropriate in this case.

Capital punishment in this case will do nothing to deter similar violence. In fact, making a white supremacist martyr of Dylann Roof may ultimately cause more violence, just as the government’s lethal violence at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993 inspired the white supremacist terror bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Sparing Dylann Roof will not end white supremacist violence, but it will not feed the monster, either. Roof sitting in prison for the rest of his life might grow out of the white supremacist philosophy that someone carefully taught him in his youth. He might eventually explain to himself and to us why he committed this demonic act. At any rate, sitting in federal prison, he would be unlikely to remain an icon to white supremacists across the country.    

On a broader level, Coates is entirely correct that capital punishment in Roof’s case will only perpetuate the worst racial injustice in a grossly inequitable criminal justice system, because the death penalty is unfairly administered along racial lines. The long roll call of exonerated prisoners in capital cases in America is mostly black and brown, and virtually all poor. If innocent people have been executed by the states, as they almost certainly have, rest assured that the list of names is mostly black and brown, too, and virtually all poor.

The death penalty is wrong, as more and more of us increasingly conclude, and in time we will end it. Killing Dylann Roof will only give the death penalty an undeserved stay of execution.

Tim’s note left me wondering if the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001 led to any incidents of violence inspired by his martyrdom—which, by the way, was an explicit goal of McVeigh’s. I can’t recall any incidents and couldn’t find any during a cursory Google search, but if you know of something, please drop me an email.

But this ABC News report is interesting; it found that the risk of anti-government radicals viewing McVeigh as a martyr is really low: “Experts say most members of the militia believe McVeigh was not really one of them — they believe he is really part of a government conspiracy to squash the Patriot movement.” Who knew there were truthers for the Oklahoma City bombing?

Radical right-wing militia members believe the fertilizer bomb McVeigh used could not have caused the extensive damage seen in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. They believe there was another bomb planted inside the building by the government that caused the real damage. McVeigh and his bomb just acted as a decoy.

Oookay. Back to Ta-Nehisi’s piece, a reader in TAD—the discussion group moderated by a number of TNC’s old Horde members—sparked a spirited exchange:

I’m impressed by the ambiguity TNC expresses about violence. On the one hand he underscores the hypocrisy of the administration for praising the incredible grace expressed by the members of the church and by quoting MLK’s opposition to capital punishment. But he also criticizes non-violence, correctly pointing out 600,000 Americans had to die to finally bring about emancipation. Then he expresses frustration with the treatment of protestors (and tacit endorsement of riots?) aka Ferguson and Baltimore. The dude can write a thought provoking piece.

One objection: “In a country where unapologetic slaveholders and regressive white supremacists still, at this late date, adorn our state capitals and our highest institutions of learning, it is bizarre to kill a man who acted in their spirit.”

It is no more bizarre to kill Dylan Roof for his crimes than it is to kill a person who acted in the “spirit” of a rap song or a video game, because statues and music and video games and Black Panther comics don’t cause violence. Violent people do.

Terri pushes back: “Those places that Ta-Nehisi is talking about that house sentimental tributes to white supremacists are our common government institutions, not pop culture.” The other reader responds:

I get that people object to Confederate statues. There is an argument to be made for their removal. Tenuously linking their existence to Roof’s atrocity is weak sauce. Statues, music and video games don’t cause Columbine, hate crimes, or murder.

I have a picture of myself and former colleagues standing in front of George Washington’s statue on Wall Street. Nary a one of us has fought in the French and Indian war, chopped down a cherry tree, owned a slave or crossed the Delaware.

Back to Terri:

I disagree. It is not a claim that such symbols caused the crime. It is an acknowledgement that our institutions still provide these fringe haters with comfort and validation for their hate. It is like some sort of open secret that we really don't think they’re so bad because we still sanction worshiping the same symbols in public that they worship behind closed doors.

Your thoughts? About Ta-Nehisi’s post or capital punishment in general? Say hello@.