The right’s response to vigilantism in Kenosha provides dangerous ammunition for future perpetrators.
Here is a controversial opinion: It almost doesn’t matter whether a jury finds Kyle Rittenhouse guilty of killing two protesters and injuring another because the damage has already been done.
Not just the irreversible damage to his victims (who were not allowed to be called “victims” in the courtroom since that might make the jury less sympathetic toward the young white supremacist who senselessly ended their lives), but the damage to come, as a result of the signal the trial and events surrounding it have already sent to people like the killer.
That message is pretty clear: “If you want to take matters into your own hands and ‘own the libs’ in a more direct way, then the law — as applied by a judicial system tilted in your favor — may let you get away with murder.”
That’s bad enough, but it gets worse. The second lesson is: “There is not only a good chance that you can avoid punishment, but also a virtual certainty that you will be hailed as a hero and showered with attention and money.”
That is a very alluring message to send to the stereotypical perpetrators of mass shootings: young white males with access to military-style weapons who, for some reason and in spite of their massive privilege, feel aggrieved and compelled to unleash violence onto others.
All of these massacres had a few things in common: The killers were men who were roundly condemned, the victims (who were allowed to be called victims in these cases) got lots of thoughts and prayers, and the perpetrators either were killed by law enforcement, committed suicide, or will spend their lives in prison. If the cases did go to trial, they certainly got no favorable treatment from the legal system.
Nobody was defending the killers. Sure, there might have been the odd wacko who claimed the massacres didn’t happen (looking at you, Alex Jones), but, generally, the reactions ranged from “He was troubled” to “We didn’t see this coming.”
Now let’s compare that to Rittenhouse. Granted, it wasn’t a traditional mass shooting, but he still took it upon himself to bring a gun, which he was not allowed to own, to a volatile situation in order to “protect” businesses from people he previously professed he wanted to shoot.
The fact that the video in which he made that statement was not admitted at trial shows another major difference: Rittenhouse seems to be getting some favorable rulings from a judge who has raised eyebrows with his own behavior, such as asking the jury to applaud a defense witness for his military service.
In addition, Rittenhouse didn’t have to await his trial in jail. Instead, he had a legal defense fund that raised at least the $2 million needed for his bail.
The reason this was possible may be the most crucial difference of all: Instead of having been universally condemned for something that was, at the very least, stupid and irresponsible, Rittenhouse has been celebrated by many on the right — including Donald Trump — for killing the protesters.
Whether that is because the protest in question was related to yet another police shooting of a Black man or because there is an increasingly militant wing of the GOP that is itching for a fight (like this guy asking “When do we get to use the guns?”), it certainly appears as though Rittenhouse did the thing that lots of people like him are secretly (or not-so-secretly) fantasizing about: killing the opposition.
We are not just talking about some fringe voices, although, to be fair, most of the GOP has strayed onto the fringe and beyond. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Rittenhouse even has supporters in Congress.
And, of course, a hero of white supremacists and other Trump supporters will always have an ally in Fox News. Tucker Carlson was quick to defend Rittenhouse even before it was chic to do so, and Sean Hannity just interviewed his mother a couple of days ago.
So, what do you get when you combine the profile of mass shooters with the royal treatment Rittenhouse has been receiving? An extremely dangerous and troubling mix of violence waiting to happen.
Because we are not just talking about a couple of mass shooters every year. For every one of them who goes through with it, there are probably hundreds who feel just as aggrieved, hate the “others,” think they are unappreciated, and dream about going out with a bang.
To all of them, the Rittenhouse experience must seem incredibly tempting — certainly better than shooting up a high school.
Now they know there is a better option than going out in a blaze of infamy: They can act out their violent fantasies, escape accountability, receive the recognition they crave — and possibly get rich in the process.
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Kyle Rittenhouse caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), body 1 (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Judge Bruce Schroeder caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), body 2 (US Supreme Court), and courthouse (Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0).