Law & the Courts

Dylann Roof, Public Enemy

Dylann Roof in custody in Charleston, S.C., June 19, 2015. (Pool/Reuters)
His crime was not just against his immediate victims.

Of course Dylann Roof deserves the death penalty. The question is whether he should get it.

If he does, the duty of executing him properly should fall to the people of South Carolina, where he committed a mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. He has not been convicted by South Carolina of those crimes yet, though Roof’s repeated insistence in court – “I am guilty” — suggests that convicting him would not be very difficult.

Instead, Roof has been convicted in federal court on hate-crimes charges. These are, in general, bad laws that make the motive for a heinous crime in effect the crime itself. Of course Roof was motivated by racial animosity, and racial animosity evidences spiritual and intellectual defects. But there are many millions of Americans who are afflicted by racial animosity who do not walk into churches and massacre the worshippers, and there is no good reason to walk into a church and massacre the worshippers. The crime is the crime and the motive is the motive, and hate-crimes laws conflate them.

That being said, if we are to have executions, then Roof is the sort of murderer who should be executed. His crimes are heinous, but their heinousness is not the reason to put him to death. The reason to put him to death is that while his offenses were first and foremost crimes against his actual immediate victims, the nine people he murdered and the one survivor he shot, they were also crimes against the public as a whole and against the state.

Roof, by his own assessment, meant to incite a race war.

There are crimes that are essentially private, and they are nonetheless horrible for being essentially private. A jealous husband murders his wife, a three-block drug dealer in Chicago murders another three-block drug dealer in Chicago. But there are crimes that are essentially public, in which the state has a particular interest beyond merely defending the lives and property of specific citizens. These crimes include such ancient offenses as treason and sedition and such modern phenomena as terrorism.

Hate-crimes laws are in a sense a cousin of civil-rights laws. They are targeted measures crafted with a mind to protecting people such as African Americans who historically are ill served by the police and municipal authorities, whose lives and properties were during an uglier era in our history as much in danger from those with a legal duty to protect them as from anybody else.

Because Dylann Roof’s crimes were racially motivated, we think of them as being of a piece with civil-rights violations, an extreme version of sending Rosa Parks to the back of the bus.

Properly understood, they are more like terrorism — or simply are terrorism. Their aim is political and general rather than the victimization of any particular person. Indeed, Roof said that he imagined that the people in the church were decent enough, being in a church and all, and that he almost — almost — forwent his rampage because they had been so courteous to him. Roof might be cracked — there was some serious question as to whether he was in fact mentally fit to stand trial for his crimes — but then so are many Islamist suicide-bombers and Taliban beheaders.

Like that of any jihadist, his aim was to disrupt the American order, political and social. He should be understood in that context.

Dylann Roof’s aim was to disrupt the American order, political and social.

Here I will anticipate an objection: As with the case of hate crimes, the case of terrorism is defined in no small part by motive as well. There isn’t a good reason to shoot up a church full of peaceable worshippers, and there isn’t a good reason to fly an airliner into an office tower, either, and what happened on September 11, 2001, was not 2,996 ordinary homicides. But the opinion that black people are in some way inferior and vicious is, though wicked and wrong, different from the opinion that the United States government should be violently overthrown or that a bloody race war should be launched on June 17, 2015. Perhaps I am cutting it fine here, but I believe that the distinction is an important one: a terroristic attack on African Americans per se ought to be understood as a terroristic attack on the United States per se rather than as homicide multiplied by racism.

So, should he die?

It is not mercy to forgo putting to death those who do not deserve it — that is only simple justice. Mercy is found in forgoing to put to death those who do deserve to endure that penalty. There are many occasions upon which that may be possible or even desirable. But the body politic acting through the instrument of the state in defense of the integrity of the American corporation as a whole owes it to each of its members to pursue the maximum sanction without reservation or apology. Dylann Roof’s jihad may in fact be less of a realistic threat than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s, but it ought to be understood as a specimen of the same species.

Murder was not his only crime.

– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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