In the defense attorney’s narrative, the defendant was not a nameless active shooter; he was Mr. Rittenhouse. He was Kyle. He was the civic-minded teenager who had come from his home in Antioch, Ill., to protect the bricks and mortar of a neighboring community. He wanted to preserve the businesses that give a place its economic foundation, as well as its texture, color and energy. Kyle was the kid who found himself under attack by an agitated Joseph Rosenbaum and so was forced to commit homicide in self-defense.
It’s likely that Rittenhouse, now 18, is all of those things and more.
He was a multitude of contradictions on that night in August 2020, when the city that he did not live in was roiled by chaos in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Blake is a Black man who was left partially paralyzed and whose shooting weighed heavily on this country during a year of high-profile assaults on Black men and women.
A jury has to make a legal judgment about Rittenhouse’s culpability. But the entire country has to make sense of all those competing notions, which might be summed up with: Who looks dangerous? Who looks righteous?
As the state wrapped up its case, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger told the jury, “You cannot claim self-defense against a danger you create.”
This would seem obvious. But all too often, White men with guns do not see themselves as a danger. They cannot fathom that their actions are suspect. They cannot envision themselves as anything but patriotic and godly. Their moral certitude has been so deeply embedded into the collective mind-set that what they choose to protect, whether a nondescript auto center or a vulnerable human being, is quickly presumed to be valuable and worthy of protection. What White men choose to disregard comes to bear the taint of effluvium. As a culture, we are only now disentangling ourselves from this web. The process has been painful and exhausting.
Rittenhouse, with his youth, is a reminder that this sense of favor and privilege is not just embedded in an older generation. This belief in one’s infallibility, this certainty, has been inherited. It isn’t some relic of the past. It’s alive and vibrant in a generation that is only just coming of age, one that still has the chubby-cheeked roundness of childhood. One that was supposed to be so, so much better. Rittenhouse is a slayer of optimism about the human condition.
The defendant seemed incapable of stepping outside of himself and considering how he might have appeared to others. On a chaotic and unnerving night, he wore no uniform to announce his affiliation or to make plain to whom he was accountable. He falsely identified himself as an emergency medical technician, according to Binger. He called himself an EMT, but one whose medical bag was a mere speck compared with the size of his gun. He was not a Kenosha business owner. He was a random guy with a gun. He was a loose cannon, a wild card. A danger in the eyes of others.
Rittenhouse possessed the gun with a privileged confidence. He carried the weapon secure in his belief that he wouldn’t be seen as a provocateur, but as a protector, as a savior. If he said it was so, then it would be. He arrived in Kenosha with the audacity of an action figure, but Superman rescued victims, babies and damsels. The man of steel wasn’t swooping in from the heavens to salvage a car shop.
If people remember any moment from the trial, it may well be when Rittenhouse cried during his testimony. His face contorted with emotion; he gasped for air as he spoke, until the judge called for a brief recess so Rittenhouse could compose himself. But it’s also important to remember that Rittenhouse wept as he described the risk he perceived to his own life. He was crying over the danger that he saw in others. He wasn’t shedding tears over the danger that he posed.
Before the jury began its deliberations, its members were given more than 30 pages of information to help them sort through the complex legal issues involved in this case. But there are no nifty handouts to force young men like Rittenhouse to see themselves as those outside of their circle might. White male Midwestern teenagers have inherited the luxury of not having to step outside of themselves. They don’t have to consciously consider whether their comportment might be viewed as threatening, their carriage suspicious or their demeanor cause for alerting the police. They have the psychic freedom to roam widely, to claim any space as their own. Until, all of a sudden, they don’t.
In defense of Rittenhouse’s killing of Rosenbaum, who gave chase, attorney Mark Richards noted that “my client had to deal with him that night alone.” But in truth, Rittenhouse was not alone. He was surrounded by throngs of people. They were the same people who ran to Rosenbaum’s aid after Rittenhouse shot him. They were the same people screaming to put pressure on Rosenbaum’s wounds and who loaded him into an SUV. The same ones running frantically at the sound of gunfire. The same crowds who turned in outrage toward the defendant, who ran from the scene.
If Rittenhouse was alone, it was in his failure to recognize the danger that so many around him saw so clearly.