The Case Against Killing Dylann Roof

06/29/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

By many moral standards, Dylann Storm Roof deserves to be executed. He has been described as a terrorist killer filled with racial hate. However, this is one of those many moments where wisdom tells us to decline to use a power that is in our hands. Dylann Roof should be spared execution not because he deserves it, but because our society deserves something better than the things that flow from executions.

It is inescapable that Roof's crime was racially motivated; he intentionally targeted African Americans in a worship service. Yet, using his case as an argument for the death penalty ignores what harsh sentences like capital punishment seem to inevitably produce in a society infused with structural racism. Harsh criminal penalties, like capital punishment or strict mandatory minimum sentences in the war on drugs, too often end up being used disproportionally against blacks and producing racial disparities that undervalue the lives of black victims.

If we use the punishment of Roof to bolster the institution of capital punishment, we can't pretend that it will be limited to mass murderers like him. Experience teaches that our society simply does not work that way. An emboldened use of the death penalty would likely hurt black defendants (especially those with white victims) the most.

This isn't an abstraction. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, over 40 percent of those on America's death rows are black, and murders in which the victim is white are much more likely to produce a death sentence. In South Carolina the majority of the people on death row are black.

If racism exists in this country (and it does), then it also exists at least sometimes in the minds of jurors, prosecutors, and judges. That means that when we put the ability to kill in their hands, that ability will, at times, be guided by racism. There are only two ways to stop that dynamic. The first is to end racism, overt and covert, conscious and subconscious, within our society. The second is to not allow capital punishment. The first is a long way off, if we are honest with ourselves, meaning that the second choice is an imperative if we are to avoid racial bias and disparities in the use of the machinery of death. Killing Roof would only prop up a system that will then go on to inexorably kill black men who commit murders less heinous than Roof's massacre at a prayer meeting.

Not long after the massacre at Emanuel AME Church, I received a message from a friend in Texas. Normally a progressive who is opposed to capital punishment, he wrote "Things like Charleston really challenge my dislike of the death penalty. [It's] very difficult not to want that kid to die at the state's hand."

I understand his sentiment. It comes from a deep repulsion at the crime Roof committed, and the knowledge that his racial terrorism is part of a long and ugly tradition in the United States dating back to slavery itself, to the Civil War draft riots in New York, through the lynching era of the 1900's, and up to and including the unjustified killing of black men by police officers in recent months. Still, we must step back and consider what happens next. Wisdom and swift retribution are rarely fellow travelers, and a wicked circle of violence can sometimes only be broken by undeserved mercy. Another killing won't solve a problem as old as our nation. In the end, we must solve racism through engagement, insistence, and sustained activism, not through a death.