The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse was no bolt-from-the-blue surprise, but I worry about what it portends — and potentially encourages. I fear that other self-appointed, heavily armed vigilantes will take this verdict as a green light to act out their bloody fantasies.

The jury accepted the defense’s claim that Rittenhouse — accused of killing two men and wounding another during a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis., in August 2020 — was acting in self-defense. Perhaps his tearful histrionics on the witness stand were convincing. Perhaps Judge Bruce Schroeder’s long-standing reputation as a jurist who tilts the scales toward criminal defendants was a factor. Perhaps prosecutors should have put on a more coherent, less disjointed presentation from the beginning, rather than wait until closing arguments to offer the jury a compelling narrative.

Even though he was found not guilty of all charges, what Rittenhouse did should be seen as clearly, horribly, tragically wrong.

Rittenhouse, then 17, was at home, across the state line in Illinois, when he saw reports of anger and unrest in Kenosha following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. Rittenhouse’s response was to anoint himself some kind of teenage avenger and rush to Kenosha, where he carried an assault rifle that he was too young to legally buy, to “defend” the community against protesters.

He had no idea what he was doing. He had no idea how to keep himself and others safe while wielding a military-style weapon. Rather than play any kind of constructive role, he made the situation far more dangerous for everyone concerned.

Rittenhouse ended up killing protesters Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounding a third person, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26. One of the men tried to take Rittenhouse’s rifle, the defense argued; another tried to attack him with a skateboard; another pointed a gun at him. In each instance, defense lawyers claimed, Rittenhouse had reason to fear for his life — and therefore had the right to fire in self-defense.

Only in his summation did prosecutor Thomas Binger get to the heart of the matter: Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz saw Rittenhouse as a threat. They, too, had the right to defend themselves, he argued, by disarming, restraining or somehow deterring this wild-eyed kid — a civilian with no uniform or badge of authority — who was stalking around with a weapon of war.

By the time the jury heard this narrative told coherently, it was probably too late. The issue had become whether, in the split-seconds before firing, Rittenhouse genuinely felt he was in mortal danger — rather than how Rittenhouse had created danger in the first place by needlessly inserting himself, and his loaded rifle, into an already tense situation.

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Former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Janine Geske explains pivotal moments in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of homicide charges on Nov. 19. (Joy Yi/The Washington Post)
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My fear is that the verdict will encourage like-minded yahoos to take it upon themselves to act as guardians of law and order. In a nation where there are more firearms than people, no good can come of such vigilantism. For proof one need only look to Brunswick, Ga., where the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black jogger, are on trial for murder — also claiming they were acting as guardians of their community, and also claiming they acted in self-defense.

Unlike in Arbery’s killing, all the principal actors in the Rittenhouse case — the defendant and his three victims — are White. But since the Kenosha protest was about racial justice and police violence against Black Americans, race was very much the subtext of the Rittenhouse trial, too. Rittenhouse became seen as an avatar of White grievance and anger.

“Hillbilly Elegy” author and Republican political hopeful J.D. Vance, who is seeking a Senate seat in Ohio, has portrayed Rittenhouse as an all-American “boy” who was set upon by “thug rioters.” Vance even called Binger a “lawless thug prosecutor” and added some babble about how “the full weight of the state and the global monopolists” played some dastardly role in Rittenhouse’s persecution.

Rittenhouse may be young and baby-faced. He may even genuinely cry easily. But if you insert yourself, untrained and unbidden, into a highly charged and unpredictable situation unfolding on unfamiliar streets, and you bring along a weapon suited for mortal combat, you are acting like a grown man. A dangerously misguided one.

He is a “victim” only to the extent that he might have bought into some apocalyptic fantasy of “the real America” being under siege. The protesters in Kenosha that night in 2020 — Black, White, Hispanic, Asian — were real Americans, too. The streets belonged to them as much as to Rittenhouse and his fellow vigilantes.

There is a distinction between being “not guilty,” which the jury declared Rittenhouse, and being innocent in the moral sense. Friday’s verdict cannot be allowed to blur that line.