I have not followed the Rittenhouse case as closely as many, but I’m old – we’ve been there before. Remember the 70’s, the 80’s? Last year a hundred thousand Americans died of overdoses; theft is not prosecuted in some cities. Did we think our lives would be peaceful? Did we then, as we pulled out some of the pillars that held the roof over our society, protecting and ordering it? Some of those pillars were being reconstructed, but the last few years have seen their destruction, again and more thoroughly.
Rittenhouse, certainly out of self-defense, killed, but these deaths are not just the result of the actions of the men, apparently unhinged and certainly violent and predatory from long before Blake was shot, that attacked him. The fault also lies in those in charge, who have little humility in taking over our lives from cradle to grave, but shrug off their first responsibility – to nurture an ordered society, where the rights of citizens are protected and civility reigns. They seem to want to take our guns but they certainly don’t want to protect us. Our leaders have lost a sense of the priorities outlined in our unique, beautiful, and profound Constitution. However, it codifies and organizes responsibilities long seen as a government’s duty: to protect citizens from threats external (the federal) and internal (the state and city). They found a sensible format for fulfilling those duties – one with checks and balances. Our tradition, of course, has always included a healthy bit of personal responsibility, of self-protection. Rittenhouse is in that tradition. Those who did not do their duty are in no position to scoff at someone who tries to protect the home town of his father and grandmother.
We can say, at least I would say, that even a well-intentioned 17-year-old should avoid riots. (As our eyes could see, whatever the networks said.) However, for most of our past 17-year-olds were considered adults – they married, fought, supported households; forbidding alcohol recognizes strong bodies but maturing judgement. Nonetheless, Rittenhouse’s mission appears to have been felt honestly, the desire to establish order is an appropriate response to chaos. When faced with one attacker, he remained, well, I’m not sure if calm is the word. Still he didn’t shoot a man bearing in on him until that man lowered his gun, pointed it directly at his head as he lay on the ground. Someone older might have handled all of it with fewer deaths, someone trained to be a policeman, a soldier. Someone like that might have been careful not to be alone, too. But, then, we might ask – where were older men? Who made decisions that led to that night, how could they have been so terribly irresponsible? Where were all the grown men (and womn), mayors and governors, that long summer? Watching the previous day, Rittenhouse understood life would never be the same for his father and his grandmother when property was treated cavalierly, violence and arson unchecked. A vacuum pulled him in.
People of my age have been there before. We remember the 60’s and 70’s, then the 80’s and 90’s, we remember the destruction and vigilantes. The gun as “peacemaker” in a lawless town is a mainstay of our culture. The frontier might not have been as we saw it portrayed in western after western, but the human tendencies portrayed are: we were quite aware of what happens when order breaks down, when our property (of all kinds, personal and real, familial and intellectual, our bodies themselves) is not respected and protected by an ordered society. In a vacuum, force and violence settle disputes, access property, force servility.
A rampaging mob in St. Louis chooses rooms in a man’s house, threatening death to pets, the rape of the man’s wife. And he is arrested for protecting that house. A hundred cars are torched in a single lot in Kenosha. Chaos generally leaves the weak vulnerable, as the unprincipled, the untethered strong are unrestrained. Pop culture, reacting, glorifies vigilantes. Sure we don’t want a country run by vigilante justice. It simply appears the only answer: quick and simple. It is satisfying entertainment at such a time.
In the fifties when many had seen how thin the veneer of Western order could be, Hollywood offered Shane. Later cities became more ragged, harsh, disordered. Vigilante plots responded to the chaos of riots and the years of crack. Dirty Harry movies began in 1971, ended in 1987; The A Team ran from 1983-87. The Equalizer ads indicate its contemporary protagonist (Queen Latifah) is a strong, competent but violent defender of the weak – as was Edward Woodward, in the series that ran from 1985-1989.
Kyle Rittenhouse felt he needed to be there, not necessarily from a grandiose vision of himself, hardly for racist reasons, impelled by many reasons, I assume, but underlying it was the knowledge that a vacuum existed in Kenosha where law and order should have been.
Why the vacuum? The local government had abdicated its role and left nothing in its place. Why? Well, we can posit motivations but few reasons; these leaders weren’t “doers” – they had no plan of action, had no sense action was their responsibility. We may suspect motives – do they want to confiscate guns? do they want to federalize police forces? Perhaps. But if our worst suspicions are not true, the truth is bad enough: the vulnerable are the losers. And there is a complication: human beings being what they are, the most vulnerable can also be the most destructive, the most irrational. We ask in the Florida school shooting, what was Cruz doing going into that school building, why did everyone in authority note that he was a ticking bomb and then do nothing about it? Why was one of those Rittenhouse shot released from a mental hospital (I’ve heard it was that very day and he was “agitated” as he left), why was this rapist of young boys on the streets – clearly both dangerous and sick, lighting dumpsters to push into occupied police cars? This wasn’t someone that was triggered by the Blake shooting, this was a man triggered by ordinary life.
Our leaders seem unwilling to face the fact that man may be fallen let alone sick. They are sentimental about illness, sentimental about race, sentimental about vulnerability – but sentimentality is not the sentiment of a problem solver. Clear eyed, sympathetic pragmatism is what we need – a doer, not an empty speaker of cliches, mouther of slogans. The mind is wonderful and complex, but that complexity can fail us. A leader needs to face that fact: to understand some are vulnerable to delusions and others to depressions and, unfortunately, some to act with irrational violence. Of course, such a man hasn’t the guilt of a purposeful criminal, but he is no less – perhaps more – a threat to his fellow citizens. Certainly he should not be free to roam the streets of a riot-torn town. Society (our leaders and our laws) has a responsibility to protect such citizens from themselves and others from them. (Of course, a government that sentences those who walked through the capitol on January 6 to solitary confinement and mental reprogramming while not charging violent rioters does diminish our faith in its competence.)
Mayors and governors should ask themselves how much responsibility did they have for the chaos in . . . well, how many cities was it? Kenosha, Portland, Seattle, New York, St. Louis, . . . Isn’t their first job to protect the rights of their citizens, to work toward answers, to heal. Surely it isn’t to manufacture racial strife – and it had to be manufactured in several cases before this last, egregious one.
Our bodies, our talents, our judgement and our circumstances are not going to be equal, our government cannot make them so. It is delusional to believe it can. Governments can’t make life fair – we are all going to die, we all make some bad choices and some good ones – a lot of those are not the government’s business and living with the consequences is what makes us wiser – even if sometimes we feel punished disproportionally for a moment’s silly choice. Equality in terms of protection of our lives and property, equality before the law – that is the government’s duty. It is difficult, but the government, failing at it, wishes to expand, to take on broader responsibilities it is likely to fulfill even more poorly.
To treat its citizens as equal before the law – that is a great enough goal. To respect each citizen as an individual, an individual with rights to life and liberty, to productivity, to a secure expression of self (in property and thought, in family and in commerce, in speech and in print, in belief and in self-protection). Respect for others’ rights gives us a civil society, and that respect is greater if automatic, widespread, characteristic of individual citizens. It is these boundaries our government must observe. If a broadly held assumption, it gives freedom, one not characteristic of Kenosha on that dark and bloody night. And, strangely, this also means we are at peace, coveting our neighbor’s life and property a passion we feel less and less as that assumption more and more is felt in our core. However, without that integral, shared respect, we are no longer a trust society and if we lose that (no minor danger today) we will lose something profoundly, deeply peaceful. A peace that allows us to live freely, to move freely, to speak freely.