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How One Reporter Found Herself Writing About The Charleston Church Shooter, Dylann Roof


Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is an essayist and author. Earlier this year, she went to South Carolina for the trial of Dylann Roof. He's the young, white man who was ultimately convicted of murdering eight black parishioners and their pastor at Charleston's historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in the summer of 2015. Ghansah's idea was to write about the people he killed, but she told my colleague Kelly McEvers that as she sat there in the courtroom, her project changed.

RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH: Dylann was very determined to keep all psychological and personal information out of the trial, and his silence struck me as being defiant and insulting. And it felt extremely unfair that he was allowed to have this sanctuary of silence. And the family members and the victims had been interrogated and had to testify and had to sort of validate the goodness of their character.

And at the moment that he said, you don't know me; you don't know what hatred is, I said, no, I'm going to find out who you are, and I'm going to know you because you are hatred.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So Ghansah went to the town where Dylann Roof grew up - Columbia, S.C. She talked to his friends, his elementary school principal, his pastor, his parents. She learned about his online life, his undiagnosed psychological issues, his hatred for black people. And she had a point of view. She wrote a long essay about her time in South Carolina for GQ Magazine. Ghansah is a black woman, and I asked her what it was like to knock on the door of Dylann Roof's father.

GHANSAH: I went to the door, I remember, three times. And I looked in through the Plexiglas door just to see what was going on. And it was weird because you could see sort of him moving around through the house. And when he finally let me in, you know, you're sitting there with - I think he had two 100-pound Rottweiler dogs. And my heart was just thumping. I was terrified. I was petrified. And I just also wanted to know, what had happened in this house...


GHANSAH: ...That your son left here, drove 200 miles to Charleston and killed elderly black people, you know? They were largely older women. And he was really reluctant to talk. But what was going through my head initially was just, I have to figure this out...


GHANSAH: ...At all costs. And I was very, very sick at the time of hearing so much about black people being murdered in the streets. And I kind of felt like, well, it's time to stand up. It's time to knock on someone's door. It's time to make them justify how we're treated in this country.

MCEVERS: Did you get any answers from his father? Do you feel like you were able to answer, you know - get any sense of him or why he did this?

GHANSAH: I got the sense that he felt like he didn't know why his son did this. What was revealed later in the testimony that was unsealed from the trial was that this is a guy who would have Dylann, you know, do songs and raps where they would sort of parody saying the N-word and do all of this really offensive stuff. This is a guy who believed that America was headed towards a race war. This is a guy who, knowing his son had all of these issues, gave him $400 to buy a gun.

So while he can maraud around and say, oh, I have no idea why he did this or where he got this from - this is not to implicate him in saying, you know, you raised a murderer. But you definitely raised a child without racial sensitivity.

MCEVERS: The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, says Dylann Roof was unusual in the fact that he was radicalized almost entirely online.


MCEVERS: In some ways, he was similar to an ISIS recruit.

GHANSAH: Yeah. And he says that now. I mean he says, if anything from what I understand myself to be like, I'm more like an ISIS guy. But Dylann did engage on certain chat rooms, and he used the name Lil' Aryan (laughter). And he would constantly talk about, you know, how he was a great student of racism, how he was a sort of historian of black and white criminality. He knows all of this information about what it is to be a white supremacist.

And so I don't want to suggest that Dylann was completely not in conversation. But what is interesting when you look at him on these sites and you look at his posts, no one is talking to him. And they're actually saying, hey, you like this really backwards, crazy level of white supremacist behavior, and we are way more sophisticated than that now. OK, so this is a guy who's alienated even within the sort of lumpenproletarian hate groups that he's aspiring to be like.

MCEVERS: Wow. And you also talk about this idea of grievance, you know, that Dylann Roof and people like him who have these grievances, who feel left behind and then they're able to connect online with this narrative that the world is against you, that there is this race that's trying to keep you down - that that's a really new thing.

GHANSAH: You know, it's interesting. I'm not sure it is. You've always had poor white people in America, right? What you haven't always had, though, I think is the discussion of where these people come from and what they do with their anger. And Dylann can't imagine that because of what's happened in the last 200 years with the consolidation of whiteness and even lower-income whiteness, anything's better than being black.

And so there's this whole myth that black people have to take ultimate responsibility, can't be on welfare, can't be poor and are coming out of chattel slavery. And these same white guys can't even turn the mirror back onto themselves to say, how did I get in this situation? And one reason that they get in the situation - right? - Dylann is a GED ninth-grade dropout, OK? There's no one in my family (laughter) as a black woman who has not been to college or graduate school for 200 years.

So Dylann and these - this sort of generation of white men - they take no responsibility for the fact that they never learned a skill. They never learned a trade. They never went to school. They've never done the work. And so if you're really talking about who wants something from America without putting anything in, it's them.

MCEVERS: You write it is possible that Dylann Roof is not an outlier at all but rather emblematic of an approaching storm - you feel that way. Do you think there are more Dylann Roofs to come?

GHANSAH: I hope not. It's alarming when I was doing the research for this to see how many of these men are preparing for a race war, and they're armed to the teeth. I mean that is terrifying. You don't know how much of it is just, you know, social media posturing or if they're serious, you know?

And so I would hope that there aren't more men like Dylann Roof, but I do see on social media, there are people who call themselves Roofies. There are fan clubs for him. So I don't know what the moral compass of these people are, but I do know that they don't have much of one.

MCEVERS: You end the piece by going to Sullivan's Island. This is a place where Africans were brought to this country as slaves. Dylann Roof spent some time there. He squatted under a sign that honors these people. He wrote neo-Nazi symbols in the sand. And I'm wondering if you could just, if you have it with you (laughter), read the last graph of your piece.

GHANSAH: Yeah. (Reading) And so where on that beach he wrote down hatred in the sand, I carved into it all nine of their names - Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson.

MCEVERS: Those of course are the names of the people who died at the Emanuel AME Church. Rachael Kaadzi Ghansah, I want to thank you.

GHANSAH: Thank you so much.

MCEVERS: The story "A Most American Terrorist" is in the September issue of GQ magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "CHILEAN SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.