The problem in the Rittenhouse case is that the prosecutors had to contend not only with a very limiting self-defense law in the United States, but also a deep and very real mythology of the vigilante. That mythology has justified some of the most astonishing acts of violence conceivable. That was nowhere more clearly displayed than Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant book Blood Meridian which described acts of nearly unimaginable violence involving vigilantes on the Mexican border. That mythology has been reinforced in recent decades by the Marvel comic universe where every young boy is allowed to be a defender of the people. I thought Rittenhouse was astonishingly foolish in bringing the danger upon himself, but in law, people are allowed to be foolish. As David French pointed out in The Atlantic,
“The narrow nature of the self-defense inquiry is one reason people can escape responsibility for killings that are deeply wrongful in every moral sense. Take, for instance, cases in which bad cops create danger and confusion through incompetence or excessive aggression, and then they respond to the danger or confusion they created by using deadly force.”
The power of the right to self-defense, particularly in the US, much more so than in Canada, was evident a couple of years ago in the case of Breonna Taylor. In that cases cops with a “no-knock warrant” in hand, without warning, in the middle of the night, crashed into her apartment she was sharing with her boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, in the dark of night he fired a shot at the police in self-defense and they fired an incredible volley of shots into the apartment in return, but still also supposedly in self-defense. Even though the police had foolishly and dangerously created the incident that mothered the ensuing violence, the Grand Jury refused to authorize charges against the police.
Rittenhouse was just as foolish and just as much the author of his own misfortune, but none of that mattered in the law of Wisconsin. Even though 17-year old Rittenhouse inserted himself into a potentially violent situation, swinging an AK-15 style automatic rifle and elicited a reaction by the protesters/ rioters to defend themselves, when they chased Rittenhouse to such an extent that he feared for his life, in effect the jury called shooting his pursuers self-defense.
A man, or even a boy, with an AR-15 assault style weapon cruising the streets of America looking for damsels or others in distress has become part of this vibrant mythology. These are American patriots, even though they unleash inevitable violence and seldom perform the magic they have learned in their FantasyLand to expect.
Even if they leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake, accomplish absolutely nothing to bring about law and order, protect no one, they can become instant heroes invited by right wing politicians to be their aides and a former president call them “brave”.
The mythology of self-defense is so potent it can turn vinegar into wine.