Now that the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial is over — he was acquitted, in case you live under a rock — can we have a conversation about why a 17-year-old is walking down the street in the middle of the night carrying a semiautomatic rifle?
Depending on their political persuasion, pundits have either lauded Rittenhouse as a hero or condemned him as a murderer.
Truthfully, he was neither. And once we’ve cleared the hyperbole from the right and the left — not surprisingly, 66% of conservatives felt Rittenhouse should’ve been acquitted, while 75% of liberals felt he should’ve been convicted — what we’re left with is a basic image that paints a troubling picture of where we’re at as a society, and where we’re headed. And that’s a 17-year-old with a semiautomatic rifle in the middle of a riot, in the middle of the night, far from home.
If you followed the Rittenhouse trial, it’s hard to argue that the jury got the verdict right. There was no doubt that Rittenhouse shot and killed two people and injured a third during last summer’s “unrest” in Kenosha, Wisc. But prosecutors — who are burdened with proving the charges — failed to present any evidence that the teenager did anything but act in self-defense.
That doesn’t mean that the entire mess couldn’t have been avoided, however, and there’s a whole lot of blame to go around.
The blame includes everyone rioting in Kenosha that August night. Peaceful demonstrations are not only permissible but are weaved into the very fabric of American identity. For as long as these United States have existed, Americans have demonstrated against what they perceive to be injustices.
But when the first window is smashed, the first police car overturned, the first fire set, the demonstrations have gone beyond the pale of “civil unrest,” as the mainstream media insists on coding them, and no longer represent anything good or decent.
We don’t know if any of the three victims in the Kenosha shooting were involved in the lawlessness that was playing out that night. They may well have been innocent bystanders, merely there to exercise their constitutional right of protest. There was no evidence to suggest that they intended malice towards Rittenhouse; each of them may well have intended to stop others from getting hurt by disarming what they saw as a dangerous vigilante. But their intentions don’t change Rittenhouse’s guilt or innocence. He had violated no law — which is why police allowed him to walk past them carrying the rifle, much to the dismay of the armchair quarterbacks who sounded off on social media after the fact. The bottom line is that even if our intentions are good and honest, there are repercussions for approaching an armed man and attempting to disarm him.
At the end of the day, the blame cycles back around to Kyle Rittenhouse. Because, again, why is a 17-year-old kid armed with a semiautomatic rifle and walking down the street in the middle of the night, in the middle of a riot, far from home?
Remember when your grandmother used to admonish against staying out late by telling you that “nothing good happens after midnight”? The point wasn’t that you were going to be out engaging in drunken lawlessness if you were out past midnight. The point was that good people get caught up in bad things when they’re places they have no business being…and, in your grandmother’s eyes, “out after midnight” was somewhere you had no business being.
The same can be said for going armed in a place where a whole lot of people are looking for trouble. Nothing good is going to come from it. Rittenhouse likely didn’t go to Kenosha intent on stirring up trouble. To the contrary, there’s actually quite a bit of evidence to suggest that he went to Kenosha intending to help matters. But that doesn’t change the fact that Kyle Rittenhouse should have been far from the violence that was playing out in Kenosha, playing video games or FaceTiming his girlfriend or working or doing whatever else normal American teenagers do at 11 o’clock at night.
If Kyle Rittenhouse’s family had a business in Kenosha that he was trying to protect, I would be more apt to call him a hero. There are plenty of people who would disagree. There are plenty of people who would say that life is more important than material things, and the appropriate response is to stand down and let it burn. I’m not one of those people. I think things — even brick and mortar — are worth fighting for. When the mob descends on my home or my business, I’m going to stand my ground.
But the mob wasn’t descending on Rittenhouse’s home or business. That’s why I’m less apt to call him a hero and more apt to call him a vigilante. That doesn’t mean he’s guilty of a crime, but it does mean he’s guilty of being a small part of the deterioration of American society that we’re seeing play out before our very eyes. Civil society must rely on societal norms. And, in our society, vigilantism has never been the norm. There’s an old saying that applies here: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
That doesn’t mean Rittenhouse should’ve been convicted. In the aftermath of Friday’s verdict, there has been plenty of handwringing in the mainstream media from columnists who worry that the acquittal will send a message that vigilantism is okay … as if a teenager who committed no crime should spend the rest of his life in prison in order to send some sort of message. Sorry, but that’s not the way the criminal justice system works in America. Nor should it be.
But if decency and civility are going to win, we’re going to have to let decency and civility shine. What happened in Kenosha happened because a lot of Americans are fed up. Who among us hasn’t gritted our teeth as we’ve seen images of cities burning under the guise of “peaceful protests”? It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be fed up. But the answer is not to march into the streets and fan the flames.
I suspect Kyle Rittenhouse knows that now. I suspect he wishes he had never traveled to Kenosha with a rifle. He is innocent; he’ll spend no time in jail, but his life will never be the same. Because whether you’re 17 or 37, nothing good is going to come from carrying a rifle down the street in the middle of the night, in the middle of a riot. .
ν Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at email@example.com.