Rittenhouse the Divider

James Denselow
James Denselow

Whilst Kyle Rittenhouse may have been acquitted of all charges laid against him the case has exposed and pilled pressure on America’s divides over firearms. There was no better evidence of this than President Biden’s own response to the verdict; to say initially that people had to ‘abide by’ the jury’s verdict, he then went on to say that he was “angry and concerned” about the Rittenhouse’s acquittal for killing two men and wounding a third man.

The case has brought an intersection of major US issues together. Racism, gun control and the rise of extremist groups on both sides of the political spectrum. President Biden promised to heal the nation following four years of incendiary politics coming out of the Trump White House, but this case shows how far he’s got to go as well as his own shortcomings in addressing them.

Looking beyond issues of guilt or innocence, Rittenhouse is a challenge to a wider view of what is a righteous American identity. To some he was a patriot taking up his right to bear arms to support his fellow Americans lives and property at a time of civil unrest and potential criminal violence. To others he was a vigilante with a background potentially linked to white supremist groups, taking advantages of the country’s inability to control guns to take a weapon designed for the battlefield onto the streets of the country with predictable results.

Legal observers’ reflections on the Rittenhouse verdict claim that the case could be there is now legal ground for you to use your weapon at protests if you “just claim fear”. Fear is a central emotive theme running alongside much of this narrative. It is surely fear of being attacked that leads many Americans to arm themselves so comprehensively. The jury that acquitted Rittenhouse saw comprehensive video footage of the incidents that led to the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. One cannot watch that footage and describe Rittenhouse himself, despite being heavily armed, as someone acting out of nothing short than absolute terror. Yet the decisions to take himself and that weapon to that place was much more rational and should arguably come with consequence.

Whilst only a handful, it seems, of those involved in the January storming of the Capitol were armed with firearms, the notion that the country will see a trend towards more protest and counter protest is worth considering in detail. Essentially is the combination of more and more lax gun control which allows for people to open carry automatic weapons with more and more protests in terms of numbers and locals a recipe for violence? Especially when you layer on top of that the Rittenhouse verdict and a sense that could be felt by all sides that them taking a weapon to an area of unrest and being afraid will sanction their use of said weapon in self-defence.

Unlike the other mass shooter events that have blighted America’s recent history, most of which result in the shooter being killed and a consensus, however brief, that something should be done about gun control, the Rittenhouse verdict would seem to polarise sides further. Indeed, questions of double standards pose the ultimate hypothetical with many asking would a black protestor who shot a white protestor have resulted in the same acquittal.

Even before the verdict those advocating for further gun control were worried that the Supreme Court is likely to strike down, or seriously weaken, a New York state law that imposes strict limits on carrying weapons outside the home.

More permissive gun laws in a more deeply divided country with legal precedent as to what people can get away with if they are afraid, is the current incendiary cocktail that America’s politics has been left with following the Rittenhouse verdict. With the notion of gun controls a political impossibility America faces the test of better organising its policing of protests. Arguably the investment in policing manpower, training and associated infrastructure to help keep America’s angry political tribes apart is worth the cost in the perspective of the societal harm that’s at risk otherwise.

A more curious ‘x-factor’ in this narrative are the subsequent actions of Kyle Rittenhouse himself. He has already surprised some by proclaiming his support to the ‘Black Lives Movement’ in the first media interview following his acquittal. How he attempts to build bridges and consensus as opposed to pandering to one faction or the other will be the most immediate litmus test as to levels of division in the country.

James Denselow,
James Denselow

by: James Denselow