We don’t know what conclusion the twelve jurors deciding Kyle Rittenhouse’s fate will arrive at (though we could learn their decision today), but many pundits have already broadly decided, acquitted or not, Kyle Rittenhouse is no hero. In fact, I’ve lost track of how many columns have appeared over the past few days arguing that point, but here are just a few:
Paul Waldman of the Washington Post – “This has been the message over and over from the right: We’re not saying we’re glad he killed two people, but those people kind of deserved to die and he’s a hero.”
Jerry Davich of the Post-Tribune – “Rittenhouse arrived in Kenosha as a hero in his eyes. He will leave as a martyr, regardless of the jury’s verdict.”
It’s not just lefties making the argument either. Tiana Lowe, writing at the Washington Examiner, proclaimed that Rittenhouse is a victim, not a hero, while David French penned a column for The Atlantic asserting that in the case Rittenhouse is not convicted, “an acquittal does not make a foolish man a hero.”
Most of these columns follow the same format: a rundown of the trial to date, including discussion of the flaws in the prosecution’s case; an brief explainer on self-defense and why Rittenhouse may have been justified in using deadly force; and then a pivot to chastising the teen for even going to Kenosha to begin with. Here’s French’s take:
It is one thing to argue that the law is on Rittenhouse’s side—and there is abundant evidence supporting his defense—but it is quite another to hail him as a model for civic resistance.
As seen in Kenosha, in anti-lockdown protests in Washington State, and in the riot in Charlottesville, one of the symbols of the American hard right is the “patriot” openly carrying an AR-15 or similar weapon. The “gun picture” is a common pose for populist politicians. Mark and Patricia McCloskey leveraged their clumsy and dangerous brandishing of weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters into an appearance at the Republican National Convention.
Rittenhouse is the next step in that progression. He’s the “patriot” who didn’t just carry his rifle; he used it.
I am a longtime supporter of gun rights and believe that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to “keep and bear arms” is grounded in an inherent right of self-defense, both inside and outside the home. As a person who’s been threatened more than once, I exercise those rights myself.
But there is also an immense difference between quiet concealed carry and vigilante open carry, including in ham-handed and amateurish attempts to accomplish one of the most difficult tasks in all of policing—imposing order in the face of civil unrest. And there is a dramatic difference between the use of weapons as a last resort, when your life or the lives of others are in immediate danger, and the open carrying of weapons as an intimidation tactic or as an intentionally disconcerting display of political identity and defiance.
… 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.
Basically, the gist of all of these arguments boils down to this- Rittenhouse may have been acting in self-defense, but he was also carrying a rifle around during a riot, and if he’s acquitted we’re going to see more people doing that, which is awful/wrong/the latest sign of impending doom.
What I didn’t see in any of the columns linked above is the recognition that the presence of armed citizens standing guard over businesses (or even carrying on a public street during civil disorder) was a response to the civil unrest itself. The riots in Kenosha didn’t start because social justice activists were angry about guys wandering around the city with AR-15s. The city burned because the mob was absolutely positive that Kenosha police had shot Jacob Blake without any reason to do so. Of course, it turned out they were wrong, but I don’t recall too many columns excoriating the rioters for their reckless behavior, and I certainly haven’t run across any punditry to that effect during the trial itself.
You don’t have to believe that Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero to find the cognitive dissonance disturbing. And if you’re a student of history, you know darn well that riots have a tendency to generate an armed response from business owners and residents. The “rooftop Koreans” of the 1992 Los Angeles riots are probably the first image that comes to mind, but you can go back to the 1800s and find similar stories like the owner of the New York Times fending off rioters with a Gatling gun during the 1863 draft riots in New York City.
I understand the unease with which French and others view the presence of dozens of armed citizens out in public during civil unrest. I just think they’re confusing cause and effect. It was the rioting, looting, arson, and destruction that led to Kyle Rittenhouse and dozens of others carrying a firearm on the streets of Kenosha last August. You don’t have to believe that makes Rittenhouse a hero, but in my eyes it does mean that those trying to ignite a revolution by burning down a city are the real villains of this tragic tale.