Dylann Roof Should Die

At the risk of being crass, I typed that headline above because I needed to see how it feels in the written word. It felt important to see how it matches up with the internal rumbling I felt this morning when reading about Dylann Roof’s trial and then digging back into his confession to police and other matters pertaining to the slaughter he carried out 18 months ago at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

I’ve been against the death penalty pretty much all my life for reasons I will touch on below, so as I heard myself internally blurting, “He should die,” I noted a kind of rage and revulsion coursing through me, framed against strongly held, longtime convictions that the death penalty is fundamentally flawed, and that forgiveness is not only a primary virtue but a requirement for any human being who is flawed him- or herself.

Which is to say: every human being.

My argument against the death penalty rests on three main pillars::

1. The taking of human life is morally wrong, whatever the circumstance. So in killing even the most heinous criminal we are, in a fundamental sense, descending to his or her level. Capital punishment reflects a desire limited not only for justice—which can be found by conviction and a sentence of life in prison—but also for vengeance, or the levying of the same fate to murderers that they levied upon innocent victims.

It answers the emotionally charged bloodlust that is normal and no doubt intrinsic, in some corner of our psyche, to every human being who has been grievously wronged. Of course we want to strike back in rage, from our reptilian base, when someone commits murder. We’re human, and that reptile lives inside us.

But is it good for us to let it hold sway?

2. Even allowing that some people are beyond redemption (Charles Manson and Roof among them, in my estimation), my hesitation to see them executed is not so much them dying and being removed from this earth, which I will not weep over for one second. Instead, it is for fear of soiling our own souls when we take a human life, for whatever reason.

How can a little bit of our own selves not grow numb and die inside when we are party to murder?



3. Perhaps most persuasive is the well-documented argument that we can and we have—and very likely will again—execute people who are innocent. People are imperfect, cops and investigators and judges and juries very much among them. They make mistakes, or are swayed by various passions in wrongly evaluating cases that send innocent people to their deaths.

How many such victims are we willing to tolerate in exchange for seeing other truly evil and guilty parties done away with?

And now I notice that these three points above are carefully argued and rational, resonating to my basic sensibilities of trying to understand and proceed from an analytical and reasonable frame.

While barely underneath that lies the unvarnished conviction: “That bastard should die.”

And with even more conviction: “If he did that to one of my loved ones, I’d rip his throat out at the very first opportunity.”


I wrote about forgiveness in a post a few years ago on the Boston Marathon bombers, and I don’t think I’ve changed any of my views since. Talking about and prescribing forgiveness is easy, but its real work takes place when transgressions are closest to us. In my own view, it’s easy, almost like breathing, to forgive friends and loved ones for their human failings.

“How many times,” asked Peter of Jesus. “Seven?”

Try “seventy times seven,” Jesus replied.

But what about a stranger, a Dylann Roof, who slaughters our son as he lays in our arms, bleeding to death, while Roof methodically guns down other friends and loved ones in a house of worship?

“I watched my son take his last breath. I saw my son come into this world and leave this world,” said mother Felecia Sanders in trial testimony this week. Roof had pumped five bullets into her 26-year-old son, Tywanza.

He was there with his mother, at a Bible study.


Perhaps the larger import and meaning of this discussion is that the big moral questions, the ones we want to stake our lives and consciences on, have to be hard, should be hard.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean or require anything of us when someone accidentally elbows us in a line, or even when our spouse forgets our anniversary. “Sorry,” they say. “No problem,” we reply.

But forgive a white supremacist who spends time being welcomed by and sitting with good souls who harbor  the purest, most godly intentions in a church prayer meeting, then deliberates idly whether to go through with his planned carnage before carrying on?

“I could have walked out. I don’t want to say it was spur of the moment,” he told detectives in his confession, during which he laughed after acknowledging, “I went to that church in Charleston and I did it.”

Should we forgive a person like him and turn that forgiveness into sparing his life?

And does that sparing in some fundamental sense spare our own lives from the depravity that inherently accompanies the taking of human life, whatever the circumstance?

An “eye for an eye,” or “seventy times seven?”

Even the Bible is confused and contradictory on the matter. Little wonder that we stay as deeply troubled as we are.

Or at least as I am.

Dylann Roof should die.

Or should he?


There is beauty still in this world, in great abundance. I felt privileged earlier this week to be able to hear the entire Elgar, from which this piece is taken, live from our Santa Rosa Symphony. I’m also pleased to see this version by the Chicago Symphony has been viewed nearly 3.5 million times.


See this blog’s public page on Facebook for regular, 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by lovely photography.   http://www.facebook.com/andrew.hidas/

Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Rose photo by Harald Henkel, Halle / S., Germany, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fkhuckel/

Oak and sky photo by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

10 comments to Dylann Roof Should Die

  • Gerry Ausiello  says:


    Another thoughtful, analytical piece. Some thoughts for you:

    1) You commented that “the taking of human life is morally wrong, whatever the circumstance”. What if someone were attacking you, and you killed them in self-defense?
    2) You don’t mention that the death penalty is not a deterrent, an argument often put forth to abolish it. I’m not so sure this is accurate; perhaps not to the deranged, but if we were to actually punish murderers in a timely (and very public) manner, this may become clearer.


    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Good point about self-defense, Gerry. I should have qualified that with “the wanton taking of human life…”, though reflecting on it further, it strikes me that while killing someone in self-defense is thoroughly justifiable, it even so forces us into an intrinsic evil, not by our choice or disposition, but because evil exists in the world and we must do unspeakable things ourselves to combat it. It’s another frame for the world’s essential fallenness, it seems to me, which we are sometimes forced to participate in despite all our desires to the contrary.

      As for the deterrence question, I hadn’t looked at that data in a while, and taking a quick Google tour a little bit ago, it looks about the same as it ever has—a mishmash of the right and left claiming the data are on their side, while many references are laced with the word “believe,” which is a data-free word if there ever was one. My own “belief” is that it might deter some low level capital offenses, but I doubt it would do a thing for the likes of Roof and other mass murderers who frequently kill themselves after their rampages (Roof had saved one bullet for just that purpose, but for various reasons didn’t follow through). I suspect that’s about ultimate control in such a deranged person’s mind—they can kill at will, then exercise the ultimate power of not even letting police shoot them or cart them off to jail.

      Thanks for addressing these points and getting me to think some more.

  • Loren Webster  says:

    Having served in Vietnam, I’m sure I’d be quite capable of killing anyone who threatened me or other innocent people without more than a moment of a regret.

    However, I’m still opposed to the death penalty if we can keep the person from hurting anyone else. I would refuse, for instance, to participate in a firing squad even for someone as crazy as Dylann Roof. It’s hard to declare life “sacred” and then kill someone who’s not an immediate threat.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, capital punishment would certainly seem to be incompatible with holding life sacred. I think someone countering that point would pose the question of whether some acts are so heinous that their perpetrator’s life cannot any longer be considered sacred and worthy of preservation or respect. Can we “cash in” our claim to the sanctity of our own life by the complete disregard and savagery we demonstrate to other’s lives?

      You raise an important point, too, Loren, with the question whether we would participate in an execution. If we sanction the principle of the state taking life on our behalf, nothing begs the question of our commitment to that more than being willing to join the firing squad or inject the death drugs. On the other hand, we fob off state-sanctioned murder all the time onto soldiers who fight our wars, many of them as questionable as they come, as you know only too well.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Loren and Gerry – provocative for sure – I come down strongly on your point #1 Andrew, the “eye for an eye”, while “fair” at some level, lowers us morally to the depravity of the killer and I can’t imagine that revenge of this kind, no matter how righteous, can offer much meaningful succor to the suffering of the loved ones whose lives have been shattered. I lost my brother (he was 28 I was 22) to a random murderer who fired a shot gun through their closed front door (he was a grad assistant in a PhD program at U of Washington w/zero enemies – sitting in his living room playing cards w/his wife) – a catastrophe for our family, as you can well imagine… I’ve thought about the death penalty in terms of if my brother’s killer had been caught (they were not), and believe not only would putting them to death not have brought any relief to our family, in some concrete way it simply adds more hate/fear/rage/etc to our wounded world… I am not sure it requires forgiveness, for my Mom that may well have been impossible (she never got over losing her son) – altough I recently heard a moving piece on NPR of a father forgiving the killer of his child and even forging a meaningful relationship with the killer who is serving life w/out parole… this “Gandhi level consciousness” is probably not possible for everyone who is so aggrieved… I think striving for forgiveness is ultimately the most restorative path we can attempt to follow – the death penalty in no way I can see serves the healing of the devastated families & friends or our larger society…
    Most modern democracies have long ago banned it!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kevin, I am provoked to a lot of thought about the different faces of evil, if you will, presented by your tragedy and the Charleston massacre. Yours and your brother’s is classically Camusian, the absurd face of a meaningless universe presenting itself in this bit of random, anonymous violence. No motive, no personal encounter, no culpability, no legal recourse, no sense. Empty. The “Why?” question doesn’t even have a person on the other end to whom you might direct it—unless it’s God/fate.

      In Charleston, it was the dark face of purposeful, focused evil, with a name, a plan and a motive. And though the outrage of it prompts a profound question—”What kind of human being could do such a thing?”—that human being had his rationale, however twisted it was. Your brother’s perp was faceless, so there’s no clear focus for outrage—nor for whatever there might be of forgiveness, really. But the Charleston families have a face in front of them, a face of chilling nonchalance and even enjoyment at the mass slaughter and methodical evil it wrought. It’s darker, in a way, because it’s less absurd, less vacuous in terms of motive. More purely evil. Outrageous, but not absurd. We know who this person is and we know a lot about the hatred fueling him. It feels more substantive, more provocative, but also, perhaps, more directly calling forth the possibility of forgiveness, because the facts are so concrete.

      The baseline point of how we respond remains in both cases, though. There are no winners in revenge, but grappling with the legitimate, real desire for it and coming to some resolution and what there can be of peace in deciding to forsake it is a very deep and daunting task, which everyone comes to in their own way and time. Just imagining it here has been illuminating to me. Thanks for sharing this powerful, awful tale.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    You have lifted a very difficult topic here, Andrew. Perhaps the most difficult topic for us to consider. Loren’s frame of participating in an execution stopped me cold. Like him, I don’t believe that I could participate in a firing squad or any other death-by-execution process. I am outraged by Roof, but could not, I don’t think, bring myself to kill him. I ask myself, then, if in supporting the death penalty, I am participating in killing him. It feels nuanced to me, and that feels like a cop-out. I do think Roof should die and, like so many other difficult things in life, hand off the responsibility for the decision and the act to others. This does not make me feel resolved on the matter; so I will take Loren’s comment out of the mix for a moment. I cannot forgive Roof and I cannot forgive the person who shot Kevin’s brother. At the same time, my sense of outrage would not be ameliorated with their execution; nor, I think, would the hurt of the friends and families of the victims. It is a stretch for me to consider the murderers in these two cases as lives that are sacred. If there exists an “existential forfeit” of the sacred, they achieved that much. So, I am not sure it is justice served, but my sense of vengeance for the horrific wrong committed by Roof falls on the side of the death penalty for him.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, you remind me of the first of the seven bedrock principles of my Unitarian Universalist tradition: respecting “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It’s the only one that has troubled me over the years, because it seems to me that some acts and lives are so far beyond the pale—Roof’s, Manson’s, Hitler’s—that I can’t find any shred of worth and dignity in them. I can proclaim that belief, perhaps, but neither my heart nor my brain is much in it.

      So then I wonder: do some acts so remove you from the human community, from norms of basic decency, that you forfeit any claim to be treated as a person of worth and dignity? Try as I might, I just don’t see that Manson’s life is worthwhile or of any value to anyone other than his own desire to keep breathing. So then I think the issue settles back on what Kevin and I raised: it’s not about what we do to murderers, but what we do to ourselves in killing them. Does it diminish our humanity somehow? That’s probably behind the revulsion we feel in participating in an execution, yet there are untold numbers of people who would jump at the chance to do so, as I might myself if someone murdered a loved one. Hard to say until one has strode in those shoes.

      Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer on this point. It’s a matter for each person’s conscience. But do we support the right of the state to answer it on our behalf?

  • kirkthill  says:

    For me the death penalty is not the issue. The question is what environment do we subject the convicted. When is the line crossed and torture comes into play. A life of solitary confinement is surely a greater revenge than a painless quick lethal injection. The horror of sitting in a metal chamber waiting for the poison gas to rise, holding your breath until your final last gasps, appealed to those seeking revenge. A punishment of life imprisonment with books, TV, and periods of social interaction could be a better life than before imprisonment. Of course these examples don’t exist currently with the horrible state our prisons are in. But it does raise the question of how, exactly, do we dispatch a convicted murderer. Also, justice has it’s own parameters inside prison walls. It is quite possible a “cop killer” would be favorably received vs. someone murdering a gang member. So in terms of a simple solution, the death penalty works. Trying to take a higher moral road could possibly be a slippery path not planned. I do not support the death penalty. However I am not sure the current system allows lady justice to keep her plates balanced.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Right, Kirk, I think the current system in most states: have a death penalty on the books but rarely if ever execute anyone, may be the worst of all. Twenty executions nationally in 2016 in the 31 states that have a death penalty. As of July, there were more than 2,900 inmates on Death Row, many of them there for decades. That state of perpetual limbo serves no one—neither an aggrieved family nor the killer’s family. Yet, as others here have pointed out, will anything at all bring a victim’s family any true peace?

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