Dylann Roof: White Supremacist Jihadi

I think we can expect more Dylann Roof’s in the future. I don’t know that we should be so quick to dismiss psychopathology as an explanation. Racism is a psychopathology- it just isn’t one that is tied to the individual. There are psychopathologies of subjects and there are modes of coping with these pathologies. Isn’t it possible to read in Roof’s actions the attempt to ‘deal with’ his particular hatred, a particular stratification of bodies into kinds? And nothing prevents us from saying this without also agreeing that white supremacist violence is also terrorism.

Dylan Roof posing in a manner reminiscent of nsbm bands Dylan Roof posing in a manner reminiscent of nsbm bands

The white supremacist feels his culture- his means of denying is own mortality- is under threat and identifies the target: why is my life so empty, so miserable, and all the rest, and he finds a pre-established narrative that redeems him. The blacks are to blame, his illogic goes, and so to defend a world I’ve lost I have to eliminate them; my actions will have meaning, purpose, and serve a cause beyond me. I realise it is difficult to speak of these things without details, but my guess at the moment is that Roof’s violence was as much a pathological therapy for an anomic existence as it was anything else. In this respect Dylan Roof is the extreme avatar of a white supremacist culture.

We’re used to seeing stories of dead black men and women who have been murdered by the police, and so there is nothing anomalous about Roof’s actions. In fact he is a distraction and a condensation. A distraction because he personifies and brings down to the level of the individual a social psychopathology, and a condensation because he repeats and accentuates the basic structure of that pathology. He can be held up as a demon in order to show and occlude that pathology. But he can also be held up as a sacrificial animal: look! our society can’t be racist because we arrest the killers of people of colour. And he can be held up as a martyr: how long will it be before the conscious white supremacists claim his actions as heroic?

He sat in the prayer meeting for an hour. Why a prayer meeting? It’s been remarked that this church and its congregation has a specific history. There is no way Roof didn’t know about its historical attachments to radical black organizing, and there is no way to read this in isolation from the anger of insurgent black populations. This is a response. Yet why sit there for an hour? Why let time go past listening to those you hate talk about their belief? their love? their faith?

Is it possible that the white supremacist killer is a “lone figure”, everywhere and always, even and especially when he is in his white supremacist group, or in a white supremacist culture in which he is invisible because he is everywhere? The desire to stand out, to matter, to connect to something; the envy of the black faithful? Less their belief in God and more that despite their historical and contemporary experience as black people they had something to believe, and that that allowed a community to flourish.

Unlike other murdered black people there is no way these people could be seen as complicit in their murders- for selling drugs, or cigarettes, or whatever other bullshit the media/cops cook up. These people would always have been seen as Good People, and it is this must have been the final insult to Roof. We can imagine him sitting in that room listening to these who still believe in something talking about that belief, how it draws them together, how they are immersed in God’s love…….how Roof must have bathed in a potent mixture of envy, rage, and impotence.

That Roof was bathed in the chemical detachment of Xanax and cannabis neither implicates him nor redeems him of his crimes. It just makes him like a vast and growing army of young people.

A survivor reports

“He just said, ‘I have to do it,’ ‘You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go”.

The reasons are stupid and flimsy, the stuff of the most idiotic form of KKK ritualised white self-glorification. “I have to do it”. The implication of no choice, a lack of control, an urgency, a compulsion but, beyond this, a kind of empty faith and a disavowed moralism. There is no pleasure in the acts, but the acting out of a duty.

In a propaganda video a couple of years ago a white north American ISIS member uttered the words that I think will be key to unlocking the psycholopathologies of the coming decades: “Jihad is the cure for depression”.

A few days ago I was wondering what the Western version of this violent and reactive immune response to despair might look like. On Wednesday, I think Dylan Roof gave an answer: we are entering an era of irrational faith in a redemptive violence.



  1. It is relevant to note that one of the badges on his jacket is the South African flag (Apartheid era)

    • Of course- and here is a part of the nostalgic atavism of this kind of racism, its desperate clinging and immunological reactivation of older barbarisms: the code of the supremacist is other and fallen regimes.

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