Violence as Justice: Nikki Haley, Dylann Roof, and the Death Penalty

June 21, 2015

The asymmetry of response to the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church can hardly be missed. Most attention has rightly been focused on those who’ve adopted a “let’s wait and see” approach to deciding whether this crime was racially significant and indeed indicative of larger problems. But there has been another question on which a divide has emerged, along similar lines: What should happen to the shooter?

The governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, has been clear about what she thinks Dylann Roof’s fate should be. “We will absolutely will want him to have the death penalty,” Haley told NBC’s “Today” show on Friday. Faced the same day with Roof, 21, the man suspected of gunning down their relatives, those closest to the dead were just as clear. They wept, but they forgave Roof on the spot.

It might seem odd at first that they, the grieving, would be less clamorous in calls for a racist killer’s comeuppance than a governor who, to the hour of this writing, has done nothing and seems unlikely to ever do anything about her state’s sanctioned pride in a symbol of slavery and terrorism. The Confederate flag, which South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on Friday claimed as “part of who we are,” still flies proudly over the building where Haley does business.

Shortly after the shooting, Haley made headlines as she condemned, through tears, what had transpired.

“The heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” she told reporters Thursday morning.

If anything, this attack pulled back the curtain and revealed how steeped in violence its heart and soul remains.

It makes sense that a man who appears to have killed out of some twisted sense of justice would have been brought up in the shadow of a government that, in its vociferous support of the death penalty, equates justice with vengeance and violence. It makes sense that a governor so staunchly opposed to gay marriage, presumably on Levitican grounds, wouldn’t wait to prescribe an Old Testament fate for Roof while the families of the dead preached the opposite.

The death penalty has historically been applied to people of color far more often than to whites convicted of similar crimes. Haley’s desire to use it on Roof amounts to reassuring us that one act of violence against black people will be met with a weapon otherwise well-known as an agent of that violence. Roof’s death at the hands of the state would do nothing to change the fact that the death penalty remains at odds with any aspirations to a society free from racial violence. The criminal justice system, in a perfect world, would be preventative and rehabilitative. It should not be wielded as a tool for revenge  —  especially when those who have most reason to seek revenge are instead extending forgiveness.

It is an awful shame that Dylann Roof lives while people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Reika Boyd and Freddie Gray, to name far too few, do not. But if radical, remarkable forgiveness of the type seen Friday can change the way at least one person thinks about justice and stop more black lives from being lost, we will have taken a crucial step toward doing right by those already gone.

Note: About 20 minutes after publishing this, I heard Nikki Haley was planning to call for the Confederate flag's removal from Capitol grounds. That'd be a good start.