Don’t make Dy­lann Roof a mar­tyr

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - OPINION - SPENCER WHIT­NEY Spencer Whit­ney is as­sis­tant editor for The San Fran­cisco Chronicle’s opin­ion pages. Email: swhit­ney@sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @SpenceWhit­ney

Af­ter be­ing found guilty of 33 counts for the mas­sacre of nine African Amer­i­can church­go­ers in Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church in Charleston, S.C., white su­prem­a­cist ter­ror­ist Dy­lann Roof was sen­tenced to death by a fed­eral judge on Wed­nes­day. Dur­ing the trial, Roof showed no re­morse for his ac­tions and pre­sented no ev­i­dence in his de­fense.

While many saw the sen­tence as jus­tice fi­nally be­ing done for the heinous hate crimes Roof com­mit­ted, I ques­tion whether that rul­ing only fur­thers Roof ’s twisted cause. A greater pun­ish­ment would be to sen­tence Roof to life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role so that he can see mi­nori­ties thrive in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, and his plans of fu­el­ing a race war be­ing foiled.

I can un­der­stand the feel­ings of peo­ple who be­lieve a death sen­tence for Roof is jus­ti­fied. How­ever, I can’t help but won­der if this is re­ally what Roof wanted all along: to be­come a mar­tyr for white supremacy and the race war he hoped to ig­nite.

We can’t ig­nore the power of sym­bols. They have the po­ten­tial to spark move­ments and serve as a ral­ly­ing call to any­one who may feel dis­en­fran­chised. Just as when a sui­cide bomber is cel­e­brated by his peers for sac­ri­fic­ing him­self for a cause, a sim­i­lar val­i­da­tion may be held by white supremacists.

We should be more con­cerned with the peo­ple and on­line hate groups that rad­i­cal­ized Roof. We must ad­dress those hate­ful ideas and be­liefs that give birth to white supremacy ter­ror­ists. I’d rather see ad­min­is­tra­tive and leg­isla­tive changes to poli­cies that en­able sys­temic racism and al­low white su­prem­a­cist groups to go un­de­tected.

Ac­cord­ing to the FBI re­port on hate crime sta­tis­tics, 2015 saw a 7 per­cent in­crease, which ac­counted for more than 4,000 of­fenses based on race/eth­nic­ity/an­ces­try. More than half of the hate crimes tar­geted African Amer­i­cans. We won’t know the of­fi­cial num­ber of hate crimes in 2016 un­til late this year, when the FBI files its re­port. How­ever, there have been sev­eral re­ports of spikes in hate crimes fol­low­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that ex­ploited racial re­sent­ments.

There are too many peo­ple who share in Roof ’s sen­ti­ments. We’re at a point in this coun­try where move­ments like the self-de­scribed “alt-right” have surged in re­cent years, preach­ing white na­tion­al­ism and openly crit­i­ciz­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and im­mi­gra­tion in or­der to pro­tect what they per­ceive as threats to the white race.

If we truly want to pre­vent more at­tacks like the mas­sacre at Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church from hap­pen­ing again, then we must use all avail­able re­sources to com­bat do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism. Cre­ation of mar­tyrs is not a win­ning strat­egy against hate.

Dy­lann Roof had hoped to ig­nite a race war when he killed black church­go­ers in 2015.

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