What can sensible adults agree on regarding Kyle Rittenhouse, the latest young symbol on whom America can hang its devastating internal division and the newest tool for social media networks to monetize without regard to individual and societal hurt?
Those who believe in the rule of law, which should be all of us, might start with the notion that a murder trial involving self-defense is no more and no less than that. In this instance, the jury is sworn to consider whether or not the prosecution has proved that Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people during unrest just over the state line in Kenosha last summer, did not act in self-defense.
Their job is to avoid the partisan columnists with the easy fodder and virulent Twitter feeds, the media circus, the crowd that thinks the now 18-year-old is a hero, the crowd that thinks the teen is a villain, the pundits insisting that Rittenhouse carries symbolic weight due to his race and that messages must be sent.
A functioning democracy means that the jury must only consider the evidence in front of it. And a functioning democracy means Americans then must accept their verdict peacefully, pending any lawful appeals. Rioting achieves nothing except more potential bloodshed and loss of livelihood. Most likely, more Kyle Rittenhouses too.
That’s the starting place. Once we’ve all admitted that, and plenty have not, we can have reasonable opinions.
No rational person should believe that the protection of life or property in Kenosha was rightfully the province of a then-17-year-old from Illinois armed with an AR-15-style rifle. Whatever the permissions of Wisconsin gun laws, or the outcome of this particular trial, it is irrefutable that Rittenhouse, an Antioch resident, injected himself into a situation that did not concern him and that, as a minor, he was not well equipped to handle.
When it comes to keeping order in socially fraught situations, we can all agree that armed, 17-year-old civilians are not the best suited to the task. We can all agree that whatever did or did not happen as Rittenhouse stood on the streets of Kenosha with his lethal weapon, it would have been better had he not been there at all. Demonstrably, he and his gun inflamed an already volatile situation. The two people he fatally shot would now be alive.
It is possible to believe that truth and still think that he acted in self-defense.
Thoughtful conservatives should be able to argue, as many have, that the authorities in Kenosha did not do enough to protect local businesses or citizens and yet still allow, as many have not, that Rittenhouse’s presence on those streets that night did not aid the situation.
Those on the right treating Rittenhouse as a hero must surely see that if we all went around correcting perceived inadequacies of politicians, prosecutors and police officers with our personal armaments in vigilante bands of teenagers, this nation would fall into a state of armed chaos that would serve none of us. For this to be even under debate by rational Americans in the 21st century is indicative of just how dire the state of the nation has become.
Thoughtful liberals should be able to decry the threatening presence of an armed interloper and yet still weigh Rittenhouse’s contention that those he encountered in Kenosha acted toward him with aggression, a situation on which his defense has built its case. Those on the left treating Rittenhouse as a villain must surely see that ordinary people in Kenosha did not deserve to have their businesses destroyed or feel that their personal safety was threatened by a mob.
What nobody seems to understand is that for any of this to improve, those on the one side or the other must be willing to take a stand against their own allies. Don’t hold your breath that will happen, and note that social media would be unlikely to amplify such stands, even if they do occur. Those channels thrive on amplifying hate.
For reasonable people of all stripes, the Rittenhouse trial is deeply depressing.
As this cold civil war drags on in this nation, discussions of the role of parents and children, or who failed whom, or whose responsibility was what, have ceased to be helpful, especially when blood flows on Midwestern streets. They’ve become merely partisan fuel, not unlike the debate over whether Rittenhouse would be treated differently if he were something other than himself.
Go down that road and the teen on trial for murder becomes a dehumanized symbol, a cipher. The only order of business of a court of law is the unraveling of particular, specific facts and a fair judgment of one individual in one particular place and one particular time, even though he should never have been there at all. If this country were doing a better job with all its young, he never would have been.
That is what we should be agreeing on. We should be calming the circus, letting the jury do its job, lamenting loss of life and property on all sides, wishing calm for the hardworking people of Kenosha. We should be acknowledging there is plenty of blame to go around for this mess and it doesn’t matter what you think about race or politics or gun laws or anything else.
People died. Fear ruled the streets of a town.
The verdict here is not the most important question. No matter how it seems on your screen.