“Be a Kyle Rittenhouse,” says a new Facebook meme. This week’s column says “No!”
Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, is accused of killing two men and wounding a third at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. As the defendant in a criminal case, he’s entitled to what he denied his victims—a fair trial with due process and the presumption of innocence until guilt is determined.
Nobody doubts that Rittenhouse did shoot 3 men, two fatally. Rittenhouse’s lawyer has already announced that Rittenhouse will claim self-defense. Whether the facts will bear that out and merit his acquittal, or whether he killed them without provocation, or whether he provoked them into attacking him and then killed them remains to be seen.
Rittenhouse is already winning praise in some right-wing circles, if not for shooting his victims, then for allegedly wanting to help the police maintain order in the face of the protests roiling Kenosha. But even should he be acquitted, his example should not be followed.
Rittenhouse was not unwillingly swept up in the Kenosha mayhem. He was not a Kenosha resident exercising his undeniable right to use force—even deadly force–to defend himself or his property from a rioting mob. Rather, he was an outsider who came with a loaded rifle, allegedly to lend his services to the local police—a civilian with no known training in law enforcement.
And such people, however well meaning, can be dangerous. Without the training and experience of professional law enforcement officers they are more likely to overreact to the situations in which they find themselves and take actions with fatal consequences. Indeed, their lack of experience and professionalism may actually provoke resistance whom these vigilantes are trying to combat, thereby justifying (in the mind of the vigilantes themselves, if not in reality) the killing of their victims.
Consider, for example, the cases of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, who were both killed by armed vigilantes who should have limited their actions solely to reporting to the police what they considered to be the suspicious behavior of their victims and let the police take it from there. No credible evidence has been produced to indicate that either Martin or Arbery was acting in a way that justified his killing. The fact that Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted is an obvious miscarriage of justice—his stalking of Martin provoked the unarmed Martin’s attack on him. Arbery’s alleged killers, the McMichaels (a father and son duo) may claim that Arbery, in resisting their attempts to subdue him after mistaking him for a burglary suspect, may well claim, as Zimmerman did, self-defense in killing him.
Whatever the outcome of the Rittenhouse case, prosecution—with all necessary safeguards for the civil liberties of the defendant—may well serve the useful purpose of deterring future Rittenhouses, Zimmermans, and McMichaels. Would-be vigilantes may think twice before taking actions that could kill others and subject themselves to extended investigation at best, and prison terms at worst.
But while prosecutions of vigilantes are necessary, they are not sufficient. Of greater importance is the need to suppress the violence which is encouraging vigilante involvement in the first place. To that end, those who oppose vigilantism must insist on a more vigorous response from our leaders, such as they are, then many have shown so far. It is not enough to respond to violence by hiding behind armed guards like the Mayor of Chicago, or hiding out in one’s gated community like the Mayor of St. Louis, or wishing away lawlessness by jokingly referring to it as a “Summer of Love,” as the Mayor of Seattle so stupidly did, or simply ignoring or denying the existence of problems as Oregon’s idiotic governor and Portland’s moronic mayor have done.
While recognizing the constitutionally-guaranteed right of peaceful protest, our leaders must likewise realize that the sooner they crack down on the violence effectively, the sooner we can work for more constructive means to avoid future violence as well. We can better go about the business of determining how to reduce the probability of future atrocities, whether they be the police killing of unarmed African Americans, or the far more common killings of African Americans by other African Americans, or the vigilante killings, or lives and property destroyed at the hands of criminal rioters. We can hunt for solutions while believing simultaneously that black lives matter, that blue lives matter, that police brutality must end, and that continued progress must be made to make America truly the land of the free, the home of the brave, with liberty and justice for all.
The suppression of vigilantism, through criminal prosecution or through the suppression of violence which provokes it, is not sufficient in and of itself, but it’s still a necessary step in the right direction of restoring public order.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.