At the time I am writing this blog I don’t know if Kyle Rittenhouse has been found guilty of any the charges against him. I suspect he will be acquitted. The reason is that self-defense in the US is a pretty robust defence. Added to that, the United States has a rich history of vigilantism, particularly on the border with Mexico, but really everywhere. This is particularly true where white vigilantes are defending the country against non-white threats. Vigilantes are part of American mythology. The country was built on this and frankly I think it is baked into the American DNA. As a result, I will be shocked if Rittenhouse is convicted.
If he is acquitted, I think many Americans, particularly on the right, will immediately make Rittenhouse out to be a hero. I think that would be a bigly mistake. Rittenhouse is no hero. David French wrote a fine essay on the subject in The Atlantic. He pointed out that “For millions he’s become a positive symbol, a young man of action who stepped up when the police (allegedly) stepped aside.” This is precisely the point. Millions of Americans don’t trust authority. The pandemic should have by now made that clear to pretty well everybody.
In America there is a strong distrust of government and pretty well everyone in authority except a few perceived renegades, like the previous president. That distrust is the essence of vigilantism and anti-vaccism. Vigilantes are only needed because we can’t trust the authorities to do the right thing and protect us from harm. That is exactly why millions refused to get vaccinated. They refuse because the authorities tell us that is what we should do. For millions of people no more needs to be said to persuade us not to be vaccinated.
A willingness to dissent from authority can be charming. I often endorse exactly that myself. But as I have said before, it is charming only if the dissent is rational. It must be grounded on good reasons and evidence, not your uncle Ernie’s research on the internet.
Personally, I agree with French that “the Trumpist right is wrongly creating a folk hero out of Rittenhouse.” That does not mean he should be convicted. I have been trying to follow the case in the newspapers and online. Frankly, I find the evidence mixed. There is significant evidence that Rittenhouse was asking for trouble. He went to Kenosha carrying an AR-15 style automatic rifle to defend American businesses from left wing rioters. So he thought. Then in defence of those businesses he was chased by at least 3 and maybe 4 protesters (or rioters if you like) one of whom had a gun and one of whom assaulted him with a skateboard. He may have legitimately feared for his life even though he had been immensely foolish to go to a riot (as he perceived it, not entirely without justification) with a rifle and basically without being trained to do so.
There are many cases of Americans doing very foolish and even dangerous things and getting shot at as a result, who nonetheless had a reasonable case for claiming self-defence. Remember the police officers who barged into the home of Breanna Taylor without knocking and unsurprisingly were met with gunfire in return from the occupant of her house? The police fired back and were successful with their claim of self-defence to a murder charge even though they killed her boyfriend in his home. The police initiated the entire incident and were in my opinion entirely at fault, yet they were acquitted.
I think the same thing might happen to Rittenhouse. He was white and shot at 4 white men not a black man, so he will have a harder time making the defence work, but it certainly could. Added to that, he was defending white citizens from a perceived black mob. I don’t think he was justified in going to the city with a gun, but I think that defence might work. The American mythology might save him.
None of this makes Rittenhouse hero material. In much of white America though a young man carrying an automatic rifle to defend whites is automatically hero material. As French said,
“Most of the right-wing leaders voicing their admiration for Rittenhouse are simply adopting a pose. On Twitter, talk radio, and Fox News, hosts and right-wing personalities express admiration for Rittenhouse but know he was being foolish. They would never hand a rifle to their own children and tell them to walk into a riot. They would never do it themselves.”
That will not stop them from broadcasting their hypocritical support for Kyle Rittenhouse. And if Rittenhouse is made into an American folk hero, as I expect he will be, this will be a dangerous precedent for the next foolish young white man who steps into the next fray to defend his country from the perceived ravages of the next black militant.
As French explained,
“But these public poses still matter. When you turn a foolish young man into a hero, you’ll see more foolish young men try to emulate his example. And although the state should not permit rioters to run rampant in America’s streets, random groups of armed Americans are utterly incapable of imposing order themselves, and any effort to do so can lead to greater death and carnage. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in Rittenhouse’s case. He didn’t impose order. He didn’t stop a riot. He left a trail of bodies on the ground, and two of the people he shot were acting on the belief that Rittenhouse himself was an active shooter. He had, after all, just killed a man.”
Americans who encourage young white men to become vigilantes will have a lot on their conscience when the next young man, whether a white vigilante, or a black victim of vigilantism, is killed.
As French said,
“If the jury acquits Rittenhouse, it will not be a miscarriage of justice. The law gives even foolish men the right to defend their lives. But an acquittal does not make a foolish man a hero. A political movement that turns a deadly and ineffective vigilante into a role model is a movement that is courting more violence and encouraging more young men to recklessly brandish weapons in dangerous places, and that will spill more blood in America’s streets.”
I am very interested to see what justice comes out of this trial. it will tell us a lot about that country. I fear the “justice” will be a pretty thin and toxic gruel. After all, vigilantes are rarely heroes.