Dylann Storm Roof’s Facebook photo shows him scowling as he poses near a swamp, his jacket bearing the apartheid-era flags of South Africa and Rhodesia.
With so few other clues as to what allegedly motivated the 21-year-old to go on a shooting rampage in a South Carolina church, this photo, along with another bearing a Confederate flag, seem to be damning evidence of his white supremacist views.
Before his capture Thursday, about 14 hours after the shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church left nine dead, Roof had sat in the church for about an hour watching the black congregants he is alleged to have killed as they prayed.
“I have to do it,” he reportedly said to one of the survivors.
“You rape our women and you are taking over our country. And you have to go,” Sylvia Johnson told NBC News Thursday, quoting the survivor of the Wednesday night attack.
Roof’s roommate, Dalton Tyler, told ABC News that Roof had been “planning something like that for six months.
“He was big into segregation and other stuff,” Tyler said. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he wanting to do something like that and then kill himself.”
Roof’s alleged actions not only left South Carolina devastated this week but opened the debate again about some of the most contentious and emotional issues the U.S. struggles with today: guns, racism, hate crimes and terrorism.
As if to underscore the pervasiveness of guns in America, a sticker advertising a gun range was on the front page of some editions of the South Carolina newspaper The Post and Courier on Thursday morning, right above the headline, “Church attack kills 9.” (The paper has since apologized for what it called a “deeply regrettable coincidence.”)
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of U.S. gun laws in his remarks from the White House, as he has in the wake of other mass shootings.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. . . . Once again, innocent people were killed again in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” Obama said.
“Now is the time for mourning, for healing, but let’s be clear — at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency and it is in our power to do something about it.”
Reuters reported that Roof had received a .45-calibre handgun from his father for his birthday. “I don’t have any words for it,” Carson Cowles, Roof’s uncle said. “Nobody in my family had seen anything like this coming.”
Roof had reportedly been charged twice this year with drug offences and trespassing but was not on the radar of any police or security services.
The past offences did not involve aspects of racism.
Unlike many 21-year-olds, Roof did not reveal much about his life online.
His Facebook profile, which was deleted by Thursday afternoon, had featured only his grim profile photo. In that image, he is wearing flags on his jacket from the era when white minorities ruled South African and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In another image he is sitting on a car bearing a licence plate bearing the first three flags of the Confederacy.
None of his friends who were contacted for comment by the Star returned emails.
South Carolina Police Chief Gregory Mullens, his voice breaking with emotion during the Thursday morning news conference, praised the public’s co-operation for their help in quickly tracking Roof.
Roof’s Hyundai Elantra was spotted Thursday morning in Shelby, N. C., about 400 kilometres from the crime scene.
Police said he co-operated in his arrest.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina, the federal U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and F.B.I. have opened hate crime investigations.
The attack comes at time of heightened racial tension, following the “Black Lives Matters” movement that spread across the U.S. in the wake of other killings.
It also sparked online questions as to why the violence was considered a “hate crime” as opposed to “terrorism,” with accusations of a double standard when the perpetrator is white, or driven by right-wing radicalism as opposed to Islamic extremism.
“The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police,” Charles Kurzman, the co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece on Tuesday, noting police are most worried about “militias, neo-Nazis and sovereign citizens.”
When it comes to how people define these crimes, Kurzman said in an interview Thursday, they are often influenced by “ideological lenses.”
“Whether hate crimes count as terrorism or not depends on one’s definition of terrorism,” Kurzman said.
Kurzman said it is too early to comment on where the police investigation will go, but generally, when it comes to the law, the threshold for a terrorism conviction, motivated by political factors, may be higher than other crimes.
“It’s simpler to charge someone with premeditated first-degree murder and forget about the ideological motivations,” he said.