Dylann Roof ‘loner’ rhetoric excuses the inexcusable

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On the left is a compilation of headlines from the Charleston shooting. On the right, is a compilation of headlines from various cases of police brutality. (Graphic by Mariah Woelfel)

On the left is a compilation of headlines from the Charleston shooting. On the right, is a compilation of headlines from various cases of police brutality. (Graphic by Mariah Woelfel)

After the capture of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old alleged shooter who murdered nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the media began to look at his character, trying to find justification for an act that was senseless. Roof’s motivation goes far beyond justification and is clearly stated in a manifesto posted to a website registered in Roof’s name. That manifesto was apparently the last thing Roof said before shooting. He said, according to NBC, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Since he was taken into custody, Roof has been characterized by the Wall Street Journal as a “loner” who just “fell off the grid,” according to one relative, and that his actions can be attributed to “benevolent sexism,” according to the Washington Post. Even Rick Perry, Republican presidential candidate, threw his two-cents in, saying that the shooting was a “drug-induced accident.”

These characterizations are nothing new. Whenever there is a shooting spree, a massacre or a hate crime – though the events in Charleston are more in line with a homeland terrorist act – the shooter, if they’re white, is given the benefit of the doubt. More emphasis is placed on them being a loner who turned to the Internet because they had a hard time making friends, and often mental illness is brought in, too.

This presents several problems; the foremost being that there is an extreme difference between shooter and victim in regards to race. After Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, the New York Times characterized him as “no angel,” citing police footage of him stealing cigars from a store. Often, after these crimes happen or protests follow the death of an unarmed black man, pundits point to black-on-black crime and say that should be the focus. Assassinations of character happen with the release of records that often show histories of drug abuse, and those crimes act as justification for the loss of life. A crime, it would seem, that is much greater than killing nine black people at a holy site in order to ignite a race war.

In instances like these, the media, and sometimes the government, try to understand the shooter, presenting the second most prevalent problem: watering down of the act by humanizing the perpetrator by avoiding the obvious motive, even when it is clearly stated.

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Anastasia Dervin, a student at DePaul, feels that the sanitized language and avoidance of the race debate is an attempt to create distance. She feels it allows people to “turn a blind eye to the situation. He was ‘misunderstood,’ and that’s why the shooter did what he did. He was ‘lonely’ or ‘didn’t get along well with others’ but that’s all.”

The use of watered-down rhetoric, or claims that Roof was mentally ill also puts those who are actually mentally ill in a bad light. Racism isn’t a mental illness, it’s just ignorance and fear that has cost too many lives. Instead of focusing on Roof or trying to humanize him, the nation should see him as the racist he is and understand that our society is not post-race, nor has it ever been. The rhetoric that should be used around this shooting should call Roof what he is: a terrorist, a thug and a murderer. Condemning the act for what it was would be better than trying to muster sympathy for an act that would have been condemned had his race been different. That’s merely a first step for change.