“What are you?” a member of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston asked at the trial of the white man who killed eight of her fellow black parishioners and their pastor. “What kind of subhuman miscreant could commit such evil?… What happened to you, Dylann?”
Sitting beside the church, drinking from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, he thought he had to go in and shoot them.
They were a small prayer group—a rising-star preacher, an elderly minister, eight women, one young man, and a little girl. But to him, they were a problem. He believed that, as black Americans, they were raping “our women and are taking over our country.” So he took out his Glock handgun and calmly, while their eyes were closed in prayer, opened fire on the 12 people gathered in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church and shot almost every single one of them dead.
At the trial last December, two survivors and the many relatives of the victims sat in a courtroom and looked at the back of Dylann Roof’s head, the thinness of his neck. The ever growing bald patch at the center of his bowl cut almost made him look like a young, demented monk with a tonsure. He was dressed in the sort of getup that a man wears when life hasn’t presented him with many opportunities to wear a suit: a worn crewneck sweater and thick polyester khakis that hung low over cheap-looking brown leather dress shoes.
During two stages of his trial, Dylann Roof decided to represent himself. When family members of the victims testified, they listened to him, without looking over, as he lifted himself weakly from his chair and dismissed them from the stand with his deep, always bored, blunt voice, which sounded like his mouth was full of Karo syrup. He didn’t object often, but when he did it was because he was bothered by the length and the amount of testimony that the families offered. Could they keep their stories about the dead quick? Whenever he stood to be walked back to his holding cell, his mouth moved with what I first thought was a sigh or a deep exhale—really, it was an ever present twitch, a gumming of his cheeks that sometimes ended with his tongue lolling out and licking his thin lips.
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 askedfor 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.
When Dylann Roof’s mother fainted in the courtroom, a reporter from ABC and I called for a medic, and not knowing what else to do, I used my tissues to put a cold compress on her forehead and started dabbing it—before I felt out of place, or realized that I was too much in place, inside of a history of caretaking and comforting for fainting white women when the real victims were seated across the aisle, still crying. But even during all of this chaos, this pain that made the courtroom feel swollen with grief, Dylann Roof did not appear to look back at his very own mother.
After Roof was found guilty, they went up to the podium, one by one, when it was time for the victim-impact testimony, and standing near the jury box, they screamed, wept, prayed, cursed. Some demanded that he acknowledge them. “Look at me, boy!” one raged. He did not. Others professed love for him. He did not care. Some said they were working the Devil from his body. Feel it, they shouted. He did not appear to feel anything.
I had come to Charleston intending to write about them, the nine people who were gone. But from gavel to gavel, as I listened to the testimony of the survivors and family members, often the only thing I could focus on, and what would keep me up most nights while I was there, was the magnitude of Dylann Roof’s silence, his refusal to even look up, to ever explain why he did what he had done. Over and over again, without even bothering to open his mouth, Roof reminded us that he did not have to answer to anyone. He did not have to dignify our questions with a response or explain anything at all to the people whose relatives he had maimed and murdered. Roof was safeguarded by his knowledge that white American terrorism is never waterboarded for answers, it is never twisted out for meaning, we never identify its “handlers,” and we could not force him to do a thing. He remained inscrutable. He remained in control, just the way he wanted to be.
And so, after weeks in the courtroom, and shortly before Dylann Roof was asked to stand and listen to his sentence, I decided that if he would not tell us his story, then I would. Which is why I left Charleston, the site of his crime, and headed inland to Richland County, to Columbia, South Carolina—to find the people who knew him, to see where Roof was born and raised. To try to understand the place where he wasted 21 years of a life until he committed an act so heinous that he became the first person sentenced to die for a federal hate crime in the entire history of the United States of America.