Rittenhouse trial outcome and the violent right’s presumptive “license to kill”

Opinions about last week’s jury trial exoneration of Kyle Rittenhouse on murder charges, stemming from shooting and killing two Kenosha, Wisconsin Black Lives Matter protesters, are all over the map. I surely won’t attempt to catalog them here, or try to discern which opinions have merit, and which do not. (There’s a virtual river of opinion about opinions on the Rittenhouse decision too, if anyone is interested in taking a deep dive.)

I will, instead, point out what strikes me as the most obvious and significant implication of the trial’s outcome – i.e., that rightwing extremist organizations, and violent individuals generally, will see the Rittenhouse ruling as precedent for their own violent vigilante actions. The logic is transparently clear: I see something I don’t like happening in the streets; I take my assault rifle (or other favored weapon of mass destruction) and arrogate to myself the right, if not the duty, to “help,” to intervene against “rioting” and “anarchy” on behalf of “order” as I understand it; and if someone should attempt to stop me, I will feel entirely justified in gunning them down in “self-defense,” because now they will be threatening me.

Given our current fraught political context, this virtual authorization of vigilantism is beyond disturbing. A troubling, and I fear growing, number of Americans (most, but certainly not all, on the political right) now see violence as a legitimate, if not necessary, response to their discontents. Factor in (1) that the U.S. is the most heavily armed nation on the planet, with the loosest of gun restrictions, unprecedented polarization, and an expanding number of self-described “patriotic militia” groups, and (2) the cascade of intersecting health, political, economic, racial, and class conflicts and crises, and it hardly seems alarmist to suggest that the nation is facing a frighteningly dangerous moment.

Social workers – committed as they are to social justice, to the protection of vulnerable populations, and to the peaceful resolution of conflict – can hardly afford to ignore this extraordinary development, or avoid serious and sustained conversation about how we should respond to it.

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