As convicted murderer Dylann Roof prepares to defend himself in the sentencing phase of his trial, a clearer understanding of his motives in gunning down nine African Americans during Bible study prayer has begun to emerge.
In a word, he’s a loser — as random and ordinary as the proverbial tree falling in a forest bereft of listeners.
Oh, sure, he hated blacks, Jews and anyone else who didn’t fit the white-supremacist profile he adopted relatively recently. A living cliche of white rage, he posed in selfies with Nazi symbols and the Confederate battle flag and said he wanted to start a race war.
But even a cursory review of his short résumé suggests that what Roof really wanted was attention. He wanted to be the somebody he never was. Despite our insistence that there must be some explanation — a “broken brain,” as a forensic psychiatrist proposed — there may be little more to Roof’s story than a sad young man who marinated in one existential crisis after another until deciding that killing people was a certain route to self-possession.
What goes on inside Roof’s mind is anyone’s guess, but his actions during the first part of his trial — and now his insistence on representing himself during the sentencing phase — suggest he is pursuing a plan of some sort, despite his passivity and seeming lack of interest in the proceedings.
When offered a chance — possibly his only chance — to save himself from execution by allowing testimony this week related to his mental state, Roof declined. He will call no witnesses, he has said, and is otherwise contemptuous of psychological evaluations.
In a journal found in his car after the night of the shootings in June 2015, Roof wrote: “Also I want [sic] state that I am morally opposed to psychology. It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”
Thus, one infers, Roof wants people to think he is neither insane nor emotionally damaged and that he committed a crime that was, in fact, premeditated. The jury of nine whites and three blacks apparently agreed and found him guilty on 33 federal charges last month.
Those same jurors this week will begin hearing prosecution witnesses, including survivors from that night, as they consider whether to condemn Roof to life in prison or to death. Roof seems to prefer the latter.
Even though he has one of the nation’s best anti-death-penalty lawyers, David Bruck, Roof is declining legal assistance other than advice. A hearing Monday convinced U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel that Roof is competent enough to represent himself.
His being competent, meaning that he understands the charges against him, doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s sane. Psychologists make a distinction between the two, even if the legal system does not.
Roof’s history would seem to leave little doubt that his mental health was compromised throughout his young life. A child of divorce who attended at least seven schools in nine years, he dropped out after a repeat of the ninth grade. In interviews, his childhood friends and teachers described him as a loner, quiet, timid, physically underdeveloped, not popular but not disliked, smart and bored with school.
In other words, he was just the type to feel himself an outsider for whom life was unfair. So Roof turned to drugs, worked odd jobs and scoured the Internet in search of belonging.
He found company among white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others feeling similarly dispossessed who had created an alternate universe of blame and revenge. In their deranged mind-set, their miserable lives were the fault of other races and ethnicities, especially blacks and Jews. To a lonely Roof, who may have felt in that most narcissistic of self-delusional laments that no one really “knew” him, white supremacy provided both a salve and a solution.
The losing-est loser gravitated toward the extreme of killing the “enemy.” Finally, he would be respected by a group that he admired and that, to his mind, accepted him as an equal. But Roof wanted more than acceptance. He wanted to be a legend.
Now in the final act of his one-man play, Roof dares jurors to execute him.
Tempting. But far better would be to deny him the false glory he seeks and make him live out his days in the knowledge of his insignificance.
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