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Finding the roots of Dylann Roof’s radical violence

June 22, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
The mass shooting in Charleston isn’t just an isolated event, but can be seen as part of a troubled history of racial hatred and violence in the United States. What makes someone embrace racist ideology and what can be done to stop it? Gwen Ifill talks with Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, former FBI special agent Gregg McCrary and Paul Butler of Georgetown University Law Center.

GWEN IFILL: While lawmakers moved to quell the Confederate Flag controversy, a debate continued about the roots of the Charleston attacks. Were they motivated by racial animus or individual alienation?

In an unusually blunt contribution to the discussion, President Obama weighed in Friday during a podcast that was posted online today. In the interview with comedian Marc Maron, he was asked to comment on the roots of racism and, in making his point, employed a racial epithet.

We are not editing that portion of the president’s remarks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. Yes, that is a fact.

What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s — that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.

MARC MARON, Podcast Host: Racism.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Racism, we are not cured of, clearly.

And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. You have — societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.

GWEN IFILL: The president’s comments spurred a lively online debate that ranged from cause to effect.

Among the questions being asked: Was this attack a form of domestic terrorism?

For our discussion, I’m joined by Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler who has specialized in tracking and understanding violent predators, Paul Butler, a professor of law at Georgetown University who teaches about race relations, and Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Richard Cohen, what is your take on this question about domestic terrorism, especially in this particular case in Charleston?

RICHARD COHEN, President, Southern Poverty Law Center: I think it’s a case of domestic terrorism.

It’s political violence by a nonstate actor aimed at intimidating a large group of people. So, I think it’s the classic definition. Also, I think the technical definition under federal law. So, I think it’s a pretty clear case of domestic terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Butler, what is your sense of this, based on what you have seen, especially — not just this case, but in general?

PAUL BUTLER, Professor, George Washington University School of Law: It was surreal to hear Governor Haley announce today the Civil War ended 150 years ago, like that was breaking news.

So, really — in part because I’m not sure she’s right. But what happened in Charleston is a sped-up version of the kind of violence that African-Americans have experienced for 400 years. We can talk about the violence of slavery, the 5,000 lynchings that happened after slavery, or the hundreds of unarmed African-American people who get killed by police officers.

The terrorist said he wanted to start a race war. To a lot of African-Americans, it feels like we have been in a race war for the last 400 years.

GWEN IFILL: Gregg McCrary, you spent a lot of time investigating and testifying as an expert witness on these type of cases. In this case, in this particular case, do you think it’s about alienation or about race?

GREGG MCCRARY, Former FBI Special Agent: It’s both, I think.

These individuals — and I think it’s going to play out when we find out more about this individual — feel alienated. They become paranoid. They have a sense of identity confusion. They’re not sure who they are. They’re not sure what’s going on.

That makes them vulnerable to extremist ideas. And in that sort of cauldron that they’re in, they latch on to these things. They typically are underachievers. They don’t form well relations with other people. That drives them to the Internet. And when they turn there, they can find support for these extreme, deviant beliefs that they have, and that reinforces this. And then eventually it turns to violence.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the Internet portion of this, Richard Cohen, because one of the things you talk about at your site is about white — the concept of white genocide? Could you explain what you mean by that?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, there’s this idea in the white supremacist world that white people are under attack.

They look at South Africa, they look at the former outlaw state of Rhodesia, they look at the changing demographics of our country and they come to the same conclusion. There’s a genocide of white — against white people afoot.

Let me say something else too I think it’s important to know. And that is that this — in a milder form, this is something one sees in a broader segment of American society. And what I mean by that is, white people today are more likely to think that they are the victims of discrimination than are black people in our country.

They tend to see racism or race relations as a zero sum gain. The Dylann Roofs are an extraordinary extreme case of this kind of white racial resentment. But there’s a certain amount of this simmering in the society at large, I’m afraid.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Butler?

PAUL BUTLER: And that’s the connection between what happened in Charleston and what happened in Ferguson.

And that — the unemployment rate for African-Americans right now is 10 percent, and we think that the economy is doing fine. If you’re black and you send out a resume, you get half as many callbacks, same resume for a white person. If you’re black, you don’t even get the same kind of health care.

If you try to get an apartment, you don’t get the apartment even if you have the same qualifications as a white person. So all of that structural violence — all of that structural stuff is a form of violence as well.

GWEN IFILL: So, Gregg McCrary, you just heard Richard Cohen talk about the accelerants of Internet — of the Internet. And I wonder if that is what you see also, that these kinds of grievances have maybe always existed on some level, but there’s something about being able to share them quickly.

We know that he, that the shooter, the alleged shooter, in Charleston had a lot of connections online.

GREGG MCCRARY: Yes. That’s exactly right.

In other words, Paul was talking about the reality of what’s going on. But for individuals like this, the perception of what they have is entirely different than the reality that we share. His reality is this idea of white genocide. Or — and he made that comment just before the shooting that it’s black people are raping and murdering and so forth.

So that’s the perception that this delusional, paranoid belief system that these people have.

GWEN IFILL: So, who are these people? Who is susceptible to this kind of — this belief system?

GREGG MCCRARY: It can be anyone. It can be political. It can be religious. It can be very idiosyncratic.

But these are people who are vulnerable. They don’t typically integrate into society. They tend to be losers, unemployed, like this guy, a 10th grade education, not employed, can’t really fit into society, becomes vulnerable to these belief systems, then goes searching for like-minded violent individuals.

That fuels the fire, fuels the animus. And then, in cases like this, it propels them to actually act out in a very predatory manner.

GWEN IFILL: So, Richard Cohen, is there a strain, are there signs we should be looking for to root something like this out? It’s one thing to say this is a terrible thing to say. It’s another thing to see it coming.

You know, when we talk about international terrorism, we put drones in the cry. What do we do for domestic terrorism?

RICHARD COHEN: I think it’s a very tough question, Gwen.

Lone wolf attacks like this one are harder to detect than other kinds of group activities. They’re harder to prevent. But I think there are some practical things that we can do. The law enforcement officials would say, see something, say something. Be alert to the signs.

There are a lot of signs that this kid might have been a few bubbles off plumb. Our schools have an important role to play. And I think our political figures, if we can tamp down some of the horribly polarizing rhetoric, maybe we have a calming effect on society at large. I think we all have a role to play, and I think we all know it’s not going to be easy.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Butler, invariably, after these discussions, there’s always a call for this conversation, a national conversation. Should the conversation be about race or should it be about racism?

PAUL BUTLER: It should be about racism and white supremacy.

We have to disrupt this rush to a kumbaya moment that we have seen in Ferguson. So, we all people show up for the memorial service, and they chanted white — they chanted, “All lives matter.” That was a corruption of “Black lives matter.” It was a willful blindness to wanting to talk about racism and white supremacy.

And it’s part of the problem. All lives isn’t who this terrorist went after. He went after African-American lives. And we need to acknowledge that.

GREGG MCCRARY: Just to reinforce what we’re talking about as far as identification, almost always, there’s some leakage. These individuals leak some intent or leak it. It could be online, as now we have seen he’s got this manifesto.


GWEN IFILL: And in this case, he told some of his friends about this.


And that’s back to what we talked about earlier about see something, say something. That’s the right idea. There are a couple of problems. Sometimes, the people they disclose this to are like-minded individuals, and they feel they can trust them, so it doesn’t come out.

Other times, people just disbelieve that they’re really going to do anything. But that’s the key. If we’re going to have early intervention and stop this, people that hear this, that see this leakage, they need to come forward with this. And then we can perhaps get some intervention to prevent this.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask each of you to respond to something the president said in that interview that aired in that podcast today. Among the things he said was that the long — he talked about race as — and racism as the long shadow that is still part of our DNA.

Richard Cohen, is it part of our DNA?

RICHARD COHEN: It’s part of the original sin of this country. It’s like the Big Bang in the American universe that reverberates through everything.

You know, I think the president is absolutely right. Race relations are so different than they were 50 years ago, but — I mean, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. We have an enormously far way to go.

GWEN IFILL: But that seems awfully — the president also said, we have come a long way. I guess it’s a matter of emphasis?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, I mean, and I think it also is a matter of time frames, right? I’m 60 years old. I have seen a lot of change in my period of time.

If you’re 30 years old, maybe the world seems very, very stagnant. So, I think there’s that element as well.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Butler?

PAUL BUTLER: Racial subordination is the premise of the American project.

The Capitol and the White House were literally built with slave labor. Our history of racialized violence means that everything white people have, they have in part because they are white. We have to disrupt that status quo. That’s what the president meant when he said that racism is part of our DNA. Our DNA has got to be changed.

GWEN IFILL: Gregg McCrary?

GREGG MCCRARY: Yes, I do believe it’s part of the cultural DNA that we all share.

And it is poisonous. It is toxic. And it obviously needs to be changed. And I think the more we deal with this openly and have this sort of discussion, it will move it along, at least incrementally, I hope.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what we’re working at here.

Professor Paul Butler of Georgetown University, Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler, and Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, thank you all for contributing.

GREGG MCCRARY: Thank you for having us.

PAUL BUTLER: Thank you.