Formula for Mayhem: Booth, Oswald & Dylann Roof

The Inner Struggle

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

The news that Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old, was the murderer of nine black church-goers in Charleston, SC, has caused both grief and consternation as Americans express deep concern over his “radicalization” and racist views.

Dylann Roof has historic company where acts of infamy and horror are concerned.



He was a young American, almost always  in his twenties.

He came from a broken, troubled or dysfunctional  home.

His family often moved or relocated.

He was a poor or indifferent student, usually dropping out of school.

He engaged in fantasies to escape exterior pain.

At loose ends he latched onto a political or religious dogma offering a kind of structure or unifying worldview.

“He” is:

John Wilkes Booth-  27, assassinated Lincoln

Lee Harvey Oswald- 24, assassinated Kennedy

Arthur Bremer-  22, shot presidential candidate George Wallace

Eric Rudolph- 30, bombed Olympic Park and other locations

Timothy McVeigh- 27, bombed the A.P. Murrah Building

John Walker Lindh-  20, fought for the Taliban

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev- 27, was a Boston Marathon bomber

Tamerlan Tsarnaev- 20, was a Boston Marathon bomber

These purveyors of American mayhem all have strikingly similar details in their early backgrounds.



Oswald, Rudolph and McVeigh were trained in the military, Oswald as a Marine, the others in the Army.  In fact, both Rudolph and McVeigh were assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. Booth, too, flirted with the militia.

Almost all came from a single parent household either through death or divorce.  Booth had the added complication of being illegitimate at a time when that was much cause for shame.

Oswald, Bremer and  McVeigh were described as being “shy” and “withdrawn” and Bremer and McVeigh were bullied.

Both Bremer and McVeigh, as young adults, were unable to satisfy their sexual drive.

Some developed vivid  fantasy lives, Oswald around power and omnipotence, McVeigh around retaliation for being bullied and Bremer to escape dysfunction and violence at home.

Almost all dropped out of school for one reason or another, perhaps an early signal of a lack of socialization or an inability to fit in.

The Key

Without their acts of infamy they would, for the most part, be cast as losers lost in the mists of time.

In each case, already inclined toward instability, and with an apparent sense of grandiosity they came into contact with religious or political dogma that seems to have represented order, certainty and perhaps deliverance from anxiety.

Oswald said it best, “I was looking for a key to my environment and then I discovered Marxist literature.”

Dylann Roof has made it abundantly clear that racist websites stirred his murderous awakening.

Adrift in society they suddenly found a “spiritual” anchor that helped to explain their discomfort and which pointed to a path forward.

They suddenly fit in; they were no longer alone.

Booth’s key was his belief that through his personal action the south would rise again.

Bremer’s purpose was “to do something bold and dramatic, forceful and dynamic, a statement of my manhood for the world to see”, as if violence was a surrogate for male virility. (In our culture it may be.)

McVeigh’s stated purpose was anti-government hate fueled by Ruby Ridge and the Siege in Waco though sexual frustration may also play a role.  And, like Booth, he hoped to kindle a revolution.

Rudolph’s was anti-abortion and hate for homosexuals.

For Lindh and a host of others not discussed here but fitting the demographic, it was radical Islam.

Booth, McVeigh and Rudolph were all racist or exposed to racist culture and the militia movement is fraught with white supremacy such as the Aryan Nation.

When arrested, McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt  of Abraham Lincoln with the motto: sic semper tyrannis (‘Thus always to tyrants’), the words Booth shouted as he leapt to the stage after he shot Lincoln.

Both Booth and McVeigh hoped to inspire revolts.

Did McVeigh know all he shared in common with Booth?




The problem with assigning responsibility to radicalism is that radicalism is in the eye of the beholder.

It is a shifting definition of thought and speech in a country where freedom of both is held dear.

The real issue is a propensity toward violence of almost an apocalyptic nature perhaps to fulfill dark inner needs originating in childhood or early years.

Hate-filled religious and political dogma provided a pseudo-logic and the final step is simply deciding on the method and place to deploy violence.

In our society the tools of mayhem, weapons and improvised explosive devices, are readily at hand.

In our midst are deeply troubled young men empowered by their inner dysfunction and external messages of hate and the apocalypse.

We are largely at their mercy and the capricious  nature of fate and circumstance.



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