Killing the Killer

Dylann Roof is a monster. He is accused in a 2015 mass shooting in a black South Carolina church in which nine people, including its pastor, were killed.

The attack was a hate crime and an act of terrorism, and there doesn’t appear to be much doubt that he is guilty.

But, if found guilty, should he be put to death?

The US Department of Justice and the state of South Carolina say yes, as does the Charleston Post and Courier, which wrote in May that “there should be no debate” over killing Roof, should he be convicted. The federal decision, the editorial said, “was driven by the substantial planning leading up to the crime, Roof’s racist expressions about black people and lack of remorse.”

The massacre was a “horrendous crime wholly deserving of the most severe penalty available under the law,” the paper wrote, and “the courts have an obligation to deliver justice.”

I agree that justice must be served, but I disagree that it can be served by having the state take a life. I’m not asking that we forgive Dylann Roof — only the victims have that power. Nor am I attempting to minimize the crime: It was heinous. It was violent and depraved. It was hateful.

What I am saying, however, is that capital punishment is morally and ethically wrong, that it is state violence and, as Albert Camus has written, it is a premeditated murder that implicates us all.

Roof’s lawyers don’t make this case. Roof’s defense team, led by David Bruck, is directly questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty, CNN reported, saying it was such an “‘arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment’ that (it) violated both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments.”

The New York Times reported June 30 that Roof’s attorneys are focusing on arguments made in a dissenting opinion to a death penalty case handed down just two weeks after the church massacre. In that case, the court by a 5-4 vote upheld Oklahoma’s use of a controversial drug cocktail, allowing the state to move forward with executions.

In that dissent, as reported by the Times, Justice Stephen G. Breyer cited evidence that “innocent people have been executed, that death row exonerations were frequent, that death sentences were imposed arbitrarily and that the capital justice system was warped by racial discrimination and politics.”

“Justice Breyer added that there was scant reason to think that the death penalty deterred crime and that long delays between death sentences and executions might themselves violate the Eighth Amendment. He noted that most of the country did not use the death penalty and that the United States was an international outlier in embracing it.”

Admittedly, this case does not meet most of these objections, but that does not mean we should toss them aside. Ta-Nehisi Coates in May wrote that “killing Roof does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions that brought him into being in the first place.”

“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,” he wrote. “And killing Roof, like the business of the capital punishment itself, ensures that innocent people will be executed. The need to extract vengeance cannot always be exact. It is all but certain that a disproportionate number of those who pay for this lack of precision will not look like Dylann Roof.”

More likely, he implies, they’ll continue to look like the men and women Roof executed. Using the full weight of the state to take Roof’s life just perpetuates state violence.

The death penalty is final. There is no turning back once a life has been taken, and there is no way that we as a society can escape the moral taint of the executioner.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism;; Instagram @kaletwrites.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2016

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