“Evil” and/or “Mentally Ill” and/or “Terrorist”

"Nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims." — Scott Shane

The shooting that took place in Charleston is a heartbreaking tragedy and a consequence of systemic problems in our country we refuse to address. However, the optimist in me also sees it as an opportunity for us to learn from our mistakes in hopes of establishing a more perfect union and a less shitty national dialogue.

Unfortunately, though, our inability to talk about Dylann Roof and his actions using objective, universally-understood terms is preventing us from engaging in any kind of truly substantial conversation, meaning no one has a chance to learn anything whatsoever. In trying to make sense out of the senseless, we’ve let ourselves rely on ill-defined and abstract concepts; while there is a cacophony of opinion, no one’s speaking the same language — meaning nothing productive is getting accomplished.

So, in an attempt to promote civil and informed discourse when discussing sensitive issues such as this one, let’s try and tackle some of those tricky linguistic bastards…


A lot of talking heads and op-ed writers and people you barely know on Facebook are calling Dylann Roof “evil.” And it’s easy to see why, and they may be totally in the right when doing so. However, their rightness is reliant on the same principle that makes “evil” a useless term when it comes to practical rhetoric: its subjectivity.

We all may think we understand the gist of the word, but the actual meaning of “evil” is derived solely from the context in which it’s used (the Christian concept of “evil,” for example, is pretty different from someone like Nietzche’s concept of it). Some people might be saying “Dylann Roof was evil” and mean it in the “conscious and deliberate wrongdoing” sense, while others might be using that exact same wording to invoke the more religiously-tinged “Good vs Evil” concept:

It’s also worth not yada yada-ing over another pretty big issue with simply calling this 21-year-old with a 9th-grade education evil…

Using an abstraction like “evil” as an excuse for why something happened in the real world delegitimizes the more tangible (and fixable) culprits at play. “It’s not ‘Uncomfortable Issue X’ or ‘Broken System Y’ that’s at fault, this was caused by something unfathomable that couldn’t be stopped.”

In other, more professional words:

“It lets those who make unethical and self-serving decisions to the detriment of society off the hook, by implying that they are in the thrall of some sort of pathological entity, rather than making a moral choice of their own accord.”

Unless you believe there is indeed an effectual spirit of evil that rears its head indiscriminately, then there are likely more palpable justifications worth highlighting when speaking about Dylann Roof and why he did what he did.

Which leads us to our next tricky linguistic bastard…


“Mentally Ill”

If “evil” is the most useless term being thrown around when it comes to the Dylann Roof commentary, “mentally ill” might be the most inadequate. Because — despite its habitual employment as a kind of panoramic scapegoat that diagnoses away something the intrinsically vague idiom can’t actually begin to adequately explain — the term, like “evil,” can mean a lot of very different things.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — the American Psychiatric Association’s standard reference for psychiatry — there are over 450 different definitions of mental disorders, so there is a good chance Dylann Roof has some form of one (or more) of those mental disorders. Nevertheless, just using that all-encompassing term as a suitable explanation for his actions isn’t rhetorically helpful. It’s like saying someone with a cold and someone with Ebola are both “physically ill”; it may not be wrong in a factual sense, but it’s certainly oversimplifying things.

Not to mention, mental illness is not a valid legal defense.

All states have slightly different definitions, but Illinois law, for instance, defines mental illness as “a substantial disorder of thought, mood, or behavior which afflicted a person at the time of the commission of the offense and which impaired that person’s judgment, but not to the extent that he is unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his behavior.”

Put differently, mental illness is different from being declared…



You may hear a lot of people saying “no sane person could have done this,” and that is a fair enough opinion to have. As long as they are legal professionals.

Because, in spite of popular usage, “insanity” is really a legal term.

As such, it comes with a very specific set of parameters.

A defendant who is pleading insanity must prove they were:

“so impaired by a mental disease or defect at the time of the act that he or she did not know the nature or quality of the act, or, if the defendant did know the nature or quality of the act, he or she did not know that the act was wrong”


“although able to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the act, suffered from a mental disease or defect that made him or her incapable of controlling her or his actions.”

That means if someone is labeling Dylann Roof as insane they are claiming he either didn’t know what he was doing was wrong or that he was incapable of controlling his actions.

However, if you believe Dylann Roof did willfully and of his own volition knowingly enter that church to hurt people, then you are not describing someone who is insane.

You’re describing a…



A terrorist is, obviously, someone who engages in the act of terrorism, which all-knowing Wikipedia tells us is “commonly defined as violent acts intended to create fear, perpetrated for an economic, religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (e.g., neutral military personnel or civilians).”

While there is the whole “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” debate to be had, this seems like a pretty nice set of guidelines to at least start with.  

Terrorism involves:

  • violent acts
  • intended to create fear;
  • perpetrated for an economic
  • religious, political, or ideological goal
  • that deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants.

Domestic terrorism is even explicitly defined in the PATRIOT Act as those acts that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State that appear to be intended to:

  • intimidate or coerce a civilian population,
  • influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or
  • affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

Which means that while we have a tendency to think of terrorism solely as a bunch of radicalized Muslims doing the whole “mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” stuff, there’s a lot more that qualifies for the big T label.

In fact, since September 11th, “nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.”

Did you know that the anti-black terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan was actually the reason the first federal anti-terrorism law was ever passed in the first place? It was in 1871 as a response to the KKK engaging in “raids against African-Americans and white Republicans at night, employing intimidation, destruction of property, assault, and murder to achieve its aims and influence upcoming elections.” Nine counties in South Carolina were placed under martial law and thousands of arrests were made.

Now, almost 150 years later, we see Dylann Roof’s racist online manifestos and the pictures of him wearing flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa; we hear his aspirations were to start a race war and that he told his victims, “You rape our women, and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.”

So it’s impossible to deny that what he did was…

  • a violent act
  • intended to create fear
  • perpetrated for an economic, religious, political, or ideological goal
  • that deliberately targeted or disregarded the safety of non-combatants.


In summary, we could call Dylann Roof “evil” but the term is unproductive because of its ambiguity, we shouldn’t call him “mentally ill” because of the term’s impracticability, we can’t call him “insane” because that’s a legal term most of us aren’t qualified to use, and we should absolutely be calling him a “terrorist.”

The problem then, is what happens next.

Because this isn’t that kind of terrorism we’ve been programmed to comprehend, we as a country refuse to see it as indicative of a larger issue; as part of a larger historical trend:

“This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. The white terrorist exists solely as a dyad of extremes: Either he is humanized to the point of sympathy or he is so monstrous that he almost becomes mythological. Either way, he is never indicative of anything larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden-variety racist. He represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.”

Until we can open our eyes about where tragic events like this fit in the grander context of our country’s fractured story, we’re all just screaming gibberish in the dark.

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