Right to Life Month: On the Death Sentence of Dylan Roof

Like other young children my age, I used to pretend I fought dragons, monsters, the armies of wicked kings, and any other bad thing that occurred to my juvenile imagination. Now that I am grown, I find that the monsters of my youth were much more easy to kill and much more easy to see. The monsters of my adulthood, I find, are still in my imagination and, to my horror, they are shared by other adults the same as the bugbears, dragons, and hosts of orcs of our childhood. The pretend violence of our youth does not compare to the real and awful violence of adulthood. Yet, it is not the violence that is the monster. To be sure, it is monstrous but as I said, the monster is in our imagination.

Dylan Roof committed monstrous crimes. The monster is in my own imagination because I feel as if killing Dylan Roof will make the world a better place. His despicable acts of violence and hatred deserve punishment and I feel as if they deserve death; many believe he deserves death, but then I remember what Gandalf said, “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

I ask myself in anger who Dylan Roof thought he was dealing out death and judgment. What I am afraid to do is ask myself the same question. To be sure, the case is more clear here than any other murder case. Yet, so was Gollum’s and Grima’s, and others who were greater dangers to the Fellowship than Dylan Roof is to us. That is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about it: Dylan Roof is more powerless than his victims. He is deprived of everything except his sad, miserable life. He cannot go where he wants, do what he wants, say what he wants. His life now is merely the expiration of the hours he has left on this earth with nothing more to show for it. In all practical senses, his life is over.

When Gollum was given into Bilbo’s power, he could strike the miserable creature–bound as he was to a sad existence in caves and fearing every footfall that was not his own–and could have done so with the utmost justice. Gollum had, after all, tried to eat him when Bilbo was powerless to resist. We can strike Dylan Roof down now and it would be just. But, again, I am reminded of what Gandalf said. “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” We do not need to kill Dylan Roof. He is no danger to us locked away in prison for the rest of his life. We want to. I want to. Anyone with an ounce of human feeling wants to. But the lesson of Bilbo teaches us that, while there is great justice in destroying those who wanted to destroy you once they are powerless to resist you, we do so at the peril of our own soul.

Dylan Roof committed acts of violence and murder with a hate and malice beyond any we can truly understand. He, like those who share his hatred and malice, are diseased and enslaved to the evil that ensnared them, not unlike Gollum. He is a slinking, slimy creature that no one, not even those who share his malice, can look upon with any admiration. He was pitiless and merciless.

We are not though. We do not share his malice or his hatred. We are not enslaved to the evil that ensnared him. I can imagine no greater punishment than for him to live to see that same malice and evil pass away and the “race war” he wanted to start to never occur. How painful will it be for him to see the outside world leave the malice and hatred he wanted to sow behind them, to leave him behind them? We have pity and mercy and the luxury of maximum security prisons. Like Gandalf, ” I have not much hope that [he] can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.” He doesn’t deserve that chance. But then, that was Dylan Roof’s argument, wasn’t it? I don’t want him to live; but I want to be better than he was. So do not put him to death; put him to life, the life of one who now has to live with a world that gave him more pity than he gave others. History shows that it is an effective torment that not even death can rival.

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