As I listen to the coverage of Dylann Roof’s address to the court, I can’t help but return to a question that I often ask myself during research and my classes during particularly fraught conversations. What narratives do we simply want to hold onto? And, why?
In this case, the narrative in question is the idea that Dylann Roof experiences mental illness. His lawyers argued it. Most people accepted it. “He’s crazy” was a knee-jerk reaction to Roof’s one-person massacre of nine worshippers in a historic Charleston, South Carolina church.
I can’t say that I am surprised this narrative has critical purchase. “Craziness” tends to justify all manner of disagreeable behavior. If someone is accused of being “mentally unstable,” they are no longer responsible for their actions. The link between “mentally unstable” and not responsible seems to make sense on its face because it gives room to those who do have mental illness and cannot cognitively process the world around them in a way that does not do harm to themselves or others. (Let’s leave aside, for another blog post, ableism and mental illness.) But, this cultural narrative about “being crazy” also allows us to leverage “craziness” as an accusation so that one who is responsible does not have to be.
This was the narrative marshaled for Dylann Roof: if mentally unfit, you must acquit.
Why this narrative? Why absolve him of guilt?
Culturally, we want to believe that white supremacists are indeed not mentally stable. We call into question their logic. We accuse them of being irrational. That isn’t the case though. White supremacy does have a logic, even though it is not one to which I subscribe. Dylann Roof is not mentally unstable. He acted according to a rational train of thought.
It is too difficult for people to really reckon with what that means though. If we look at white supremacy as logical, we have to deal with what it has wrought: past, present, and future. We would have to deal with the way it negatively implicates people who want to believe themselves good. We’d have to call a thing a thing, beloved, rather than call it “crazy” so we can ignore it.
Let’s get really clear: this is not the same as normalizing white supremacy. To normalize something allows us to treat it as though it is not harmful or dangerous, something that deserves equal ethical parity with other narratives (ahem, “alt-right” instead of white supremacist). I am pointing out that dismissal of Dylann Roof and other white supremacists as crazy facilitates erasure of another sort. It allows us to trick ourselves into believing that these people are depoliticized, gun-toting, angry, and alone. They are none of these things. Let us not be lulled into false sense of comfort that calling someone “crazy” provides: It is distance. It is detached. Why hold onto this narrative when white supremacy is up close and personal?
We shouldn’t ignore Dylann Roof. Or dismiss him with an accusation of “crazy.” (Leaving aside, for yet another blog post, how ableism allows us to dismiss people with disabilities.) Because white supremacy is real. Because the threat Roof poses was and is real. Because we cannot afford to ignore that violence is the logical conclusion regarding people of color, people with disabilities, women, and queer folk (and all iterations of the above) in a white supremacist paradigm.
I believe Dylann Roof when he says that he has no psychological condition. And, you should too.