As one grim atrocity follows another in unexpected place, from unexpected people I understand that our initial collective reaction is to simply call the perpetrator evil and never want to hear about it again. That’s a comfortable and easy reaction.
The problem is that comfortable and easy isn’t what we need now, instead we must search out intelligence and understanding. Initially, I had no interest in ever hearing or reading about Dylann Roof ever again. But Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s outstanding piece in GQ about what led Roof to commit his act of terrorism deserves a read.
After all, we can’t beat terrorism until we understand why it happens.
Felicia Sanders, one of the few survivors, told the courtroom early on that Roof belonged in the pit of hell. Months later, she said that because of him she can no longer close her eyes to pray. She can’t stand to hear the sound of firecrackers, or even the patter of acorns falling. Because of Dylann Roof, Felicia Sanders had been forced to play dead by lying in her dying son’s blood, while holding her hand over her whimpering grandbaby’s mouth. She had pressed her hand down so tight that she said she feared she would suffocate the girl. Eighteen months later, Felicia Sanders pointed that same hand toward Dylann Roof in the courtroom and said, with no doubt in her voice at all, that it was simple — that man there was “pure evil.”
Their vitriol was warranted but also unexpected, since in most of the press coverage of the shooting it had largely been erased. Almost every white person I spoke with in Charleston during the trial praised the church’s resounding forgiveness of the young white man who shot their members down. The forgiveness was an absolution of everything. No one made mention that this forgiveness was individual, not collective. Some of the victims and their families forgave him, and some of them did not. No one acknowledged that Dylann Roof had not once apologized, shown any remorse, or asked for this forgiveness. Or the fact that with 573 days to think about his crime, Dylann Roof stood in front of the jurors and, with that thick, slow tongue of his, said without any hesitation whatsoever, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”
On the first morning that Felicia Sanders testified, I was seated directly behind Dylann Roof’s mother, and because she is skin and bones, it was apparent that she was having some kind of fit. She trembled and shook until her knees buckled and she slid slowly onto the bench, mouth agape, barely moving. She said, over and over again, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She seemed to be speaking to her boyfriend, but maybe it was meant for Felicia Sanders, who was soon to take the stand. A communiqué that was a part of the bond that mothers have, one that was brought up by the radiant shame one must feel when your son has wreaked unforgivable havoc on another mother’s child. Whatever it was, it was Gothic.