Beyond Hate: Healing in the Aftermath of Violence

Find healing by reaching out to others.

Posted Jan 16, 2017

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Dylann Roof is the first person sentenced to death under federal hate crime legislation. The 22-year-old was convicted of shooting nine innocent people to death on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.  In an unfathomable gruesome act, Roof waited 40 minutes in their midst during a Bible study session before systematically killing the parishioners, reloading his gun several times for a total of more than 70 shots. Devoid of emotion, he stepped over one minister’s bleeding body as he left the church. Particularly disturbing is the absence of any provocation—even an imagined, delusional or misguided one. In his five-minute closing argument in the penalty phase of his trial, Roof could only state: “I think it’s safe to say that someone in their right mind wouldn’t go into a church and kill people. You might remember in my confession to the FBI, I told them that I had to do it and obviously, that’s not really true. . . . I didn’t have to do anything. But what I meant when I said that was, that I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.” Especially chilling was his explicit denial of any remorse in his jailhouse journal: “I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

With Roof’s sentencing, we face the paradox of trying to kill hate with the ultimate punishment of death. Roof was convicted not only of multiple murders, but of crimes of hate. How does a young man become so filled with hate by age 21 that he viciously executes strangers who had just welcomed him into their circle? It is unlikely that even Roof himself understands the origins of his feelings and motives for his actions. In his incoherent closing argument, Roof denied his hatefulness and displayed his confused thinking about hate: “Anyone, including the prosecution, who thinks I am filled with hate has no idea what real hate is. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the prosecution hates me since they are the ones trying to give me the death penalty? You could say, ‘Of course they hate you. Everyone hates you. They have good reason to hate you.’ I’m not denying that. My point is that anyone who hates anything, in their mind, has a good reason. And sometimes that’s because they’ve been misled and sometimes it isn’t. But I would say that in this case the prosecution, along with anyone else who hates me, are the ones who have been misled.” 

Arguments in favor of the death penalty focus on the need for the ultimate punishment as justice in the face of the extreme evil of a hate crime perpetrated by a killer like Roof. Melvin Graham’s sister Cynthia Hurd was one of Roof’s victims. At a news conference following Roof’s sentencing, Graham reasoned: “Today we had justice for my sister. . . . It’s a hard thing to know that someone is going to lose their life, but when you look at the totality of what happened, it’s hard to say that person deserves to live when nine others don’t. How do you justify saving one life when he took nine, and in such a brutal fashion?”  Referring to the sentencing, Kevin Singleton, son of one of the victims, commented: “I would like for that to marinate and travel to the nervous system of that coward. Justice was served.” 

Capital punishment does not bring rapid justice, however. Defense attorneys pointed out that automatic appeals triggered by the death sentence mean that the case will not be over for a very long time. Despite the long wait, will the death sentence bring psychological solace, relief, or satisfaction to family members and friends of the victims? What are the psychological impacts on the families of murder victims? Clearly, the loss of a loved one imposes the most serious psychological burdens on survivors. Given that death causes an irreplaceable loss, some argue that only the death of the perpetrator can begin to address the emotional costs of losing a loved one. However, the death of the killer cannot and is not intended to replace the loss of the loved one. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch described the sentence as a just verdict, while acknowledging: “No verdict can bring back the nine we lost that day at Mother Emanuel.” Graham explained: “This is a very hollow victory because my sister is still gone. I wish that this verdict could have brought her back, but it can’t. What it can do is send a message to those who feel the way he (Roof) feels that this community will not tolerate it.”

Some assume that the psychological value of capital punishment is in providing the closure needed for healing to begin. Attorney General Lynch explained: “And no verdict can heal the wounds of the five church members who survived the attack or the souls of those who lost loved ones to Roof’s callous hand. But we hope that the completion of the prosecution provides the people of Charleston—and the people of our nation—with a measure of closure.” However, closure can mean different things to different people. Statements made by victims’ families suggest that the death sentence does not guarantee closure, and it is not clear that closure always serves as a prelude to healing. After Roof’s sentencing, Graham told reporters, “I don’t know how you move forward . . . Cynthia’s not here. A piece of our family’s gone. . . . A piece of each one of us died. I lost a friend and a confidante. How do I move forward without a part of my body?” Losing a loved one, especially in such a horrific event, can lead to intense and shifting emotions. The mother of one of Roof’s victims was at one point okay with Roof spending the rest of this life in prison, but she later testified: “There’s no place on Earth for him except the pit of hell.”

Even after the execution has taken place, victims’ family members differ in their emotional reactions. In one study of statements made to the press, 23 percent of those speaking out described the event as a conclusion to a traumatizing time in their lives: “I guess we’re just glad to have this part over.” Another explained: “This is a time of closing a chapter in my life and the lives of other victims of murdered children.” But only 10 percent referred explicitly to being able to move forward: “And now the family can get on with our lives and know that my brother is resting in peace. We can all be happy once again.” Even fewer mentioned closure specifically (2.5 percent), and 20 percent cited the lack of real closure: “It’s not going to bring closure as far as inside me.” Another survivor said: “This execution tonight will do nothing to restore our family as it was with her love, her laughter, her caring support for each of us.” Some survivors (3.8 percent) suggested that another death would only add to their trauma: “Killing will not ease my suffering . . . two wrongs don’t make a right.“

A larger study of family members’ statements after the execution of the condemned also suggested that not all survivors experience closure. Only 31 percent expressed closure, healing, or a step toward either, and 19 percent explained that the execution did not represent closure, justice or a step forward in the healing process. Most of those who expressed closure described it as finality, as no longer being reminded of the murder, rather than in terms of healing or moving forward: “We can say it’s the end, but it’s never going to be closure . . . The execution doesn’t really make me feel any better.”

The small number claiming closure is particularly interesting given the pro-death-penalty bias of those choosing to give a public statement. Equally important is the predominant experience of closure as the end of criminal justice processes rather than as psychological growth or moving forward. It is extremely important to understand how family and friends can move forward despite living in the shadow of the violent loss. Research has shown that post-traumatic growth is facilitated by positive factors such as social support and people-directed emotions. Compassion, empathy, pity, charity and forgiveness are critical to social connectedness and healing. In one study of parents whose child had been murdered, those who exhibited the most positive growth described how suffering had made them more caring, loving, and compassionate. Transformation was mediated by thoughts and feelings that included acceptance and rejecting hate in order not to allow the crime to destroy their lives forever.

Research suggests that coping with traumatic loss entails a struggle to allow positive emotion to promote growth through the grief. At sentencing, the daughter of Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, slain by Roof, addressed the convicted killer: “You will rot in hell where you belong. I hope your guilt eats you alive. While you’re pleading for life and begging for your life, I hope God forgives you the one sin I’m not sure even He can forgive.” But even in the intensity of grief and anger, she acknowledged her decision to not allow Roof to control her: “This spawn of Satan will not steal our joy.” 

While some believe that forgiveness is a path to healing, forgiving is a complex process. Felicia Sanders was with her son, Tywanza, when Roof killed him.  Although she told Roof she forgives him, she doubted that anyone could help him, and concluded “May God have mercy on your soul.” Telling Roof he is a coward, Rev. Middleton-Doctor’s niece told Roof: “It really shows the kind of person you are, excuse me, the kind of animal you are. I have many choice words I would love to say to you, but God is working on me so I will not.” Similarly, Bethane Middleton-Brown, the minister’s sister, expressed such conflict: “I wanted to hate you, but my faith tells me no. I wanted to remain angry and bitter, but my view of life won’t let me.” Even after an execution takes place, statements made by victims’ families suggest that the killer’s death does not always bring closure or promote healing.  Family members continue to struggle with the desire but inability to forgive. After one execution, one family member said: “Forgiveness is not even in my vocabulary,“ and another explained: “My religion says to forgive . . . I still cannot do it.” In fact, post-execution statements reveal that forgiveness was rare (12 percent) and sympathy for the condemned rarer still (8.8 percent).

Far more research is needed to determine the full effects of violent loss and the death penalty as one way of pursuing justice. The compassion and forgiveness many victims’ families seek in their healing are not inherent in the criminal justice proceedings to implement the death penalty. Though not common, sympathy for the condemned’s family was possible for some survivors. A family member at one execution explained: “My heart really goes out to his family. I lost my daughter, and I know today is a terrible day for them.” In some cases, survivors showed that sympathy is possible even for the condemned: “I felt compassion. I think it is a waste of life—he was so young.”

We are learning that families find the healing emotions within themselves with the support of their religious and social communities. Reaching out to help others is one effective way of protecting their integrity and authentic self, and not allowing the evil perpetrated by the killer to control them. Prosocial acts preserve a lost loved one’s spirit in memory and in the good works they have inspired.

Struggling to envision life without his sister, Melvin Graham explained: “I think what I’m going to try to do is keep my sister’s name, her legacy alive as best I can.”


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