It is indicative of the times that one can take the temperature of the body politic simply by monitoring a personal Facebook feed.
The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.
Being of a certain age I do not have an overflowing flood of “friends.” It’s mostly family and a smattering of real friends and closer acquaintances, numbering not thousands but a few hundred. Nevertheless, the diversity of opinion is pronounced.
Reactions following the verdict ranged from referring to Rittenhouse as an American hero, among some right-leaning contacts, to seeing him as a symptom of cultural rot, from left-leaning individuals.
And, yes, by the way, I do have friends -- real flesh-and-bone friends -- who lean both left and right. Guess what? I like them all. That may make me an outlier these days. Someone who sees it as purely positive and American to support a diversity of viewpoints. Those I agree with do not automatically become patriots. Those I disagree with are not transformed into enemies. They’re all Americans, exercising their individual liberties. Defend that concept of liberty, not your own chosen biases.
On the Rittenhouse verdict, several observations come to mind.
First, the verdict is not particularly surprising. The prosecution botched this from the start and was completely outworked and outperformed by the defense. To begin with, Rittenhouse was overcharged. A 17- or 18-year-old kid facing life without parole was likely to become a sympathetic figure. Circumstances the night of the shooting were chaotic and confused. Reasonable doubt clearly was a possibility. By swinging for the jurisprudential fences, prosecutors made their job much harder. Could a conviction have been obtained with lesser charges? Maybe. Then again, it would flatter these prosecutors to call them the B-team at this trial. Doomed to fail.
To me (not the jury), the self-defense premise also is highly suspect. Yes, Rittenhouse found himself among a mob and used his gun to get away. Think about it, though. Here’s a 17-year-old kid, transporting a deadly weapon across state lines, to inject himself into a confrontational situation where he has no stake or business being there. What could possibly go wrong? This sort of provocation -- a vigilante response -- is becoming more and more prevalent in these angry days, and it sets the stage for deadly mistakes. It’s not a reasonable act. It’s gas on a burning fire.
Speaking of fires, the Constitution guarantees the right to peaceably assemble and protest. It does not excuse mob violence. The instant someone throws a rock or lights a fire, protest shifts to crime. Whether it’s rioters in Kenosha or Portland or insurrectionists on Jan. 6, the line has been crossed and the full weight of the law should crash down on those responsible.
Law enforcement is charged with taking appropriate steps to hold accountable those who turn a constitutionally guaranteed assembly into a mob. Police should aggressively make arrests to defend property and life. That can include use of force. Over the past couple of years viewers have watched on television, in city after city, as officers set up perimeters and more or less watched while rioters burned and looted.
Often, it has appeared those officers at the scene were failed by political leaders. My view is fairly direct. Officers should stand back and observe when protesters gather peacefully for any purpose. Repeat: Any purpose, without regard to political persuasions. When that first rock is thrown or fire is lit, however, assert authority and put a stop to it while arresting the perpetrators.
In these contentious days, when trouble always seems near, political leaders should be prepared in advance to move quickly so officers on the scene are not outmanned and overwhelmed -- as officers were in Kenosha, and at the nation’s Capitol. Where were the back-ups? The National Guard? That failure is on political leaders, not police officers.
Finally, the gun culture in today’s America. Let’s be clear: I am not anti-gun. I was raised on a farm. Dad gave me my first firearm, a rifle, when I was 12. He also made sure I knew how to handle it, clean it, and store it safely. I own guns to this day and believe Americans have a constitutional right to protect their homes and family.
That’s a far cry, though, from injecting oneself into a volatile and dangerous situation with a deadly weapon in hand.
Anarchy is just a small step away if Americans in significant numbers conclude they should arm themselves and take to the streets to enforce their personal standards of right and wrong. Imagine if scores like Rittenhouse waded into a Black Lives Matter protest and all hell broke loose with citizens firing at will. Or armed leftists had stormed the Jan. 6 protest at the Capitol and started shooting up the scene.
The rule of law demands better restraint from people of all beliefs.
Personal politics do not justify incendiary behavior.
The worst possible result from the Rittenhouse acquittal would be if others see it as an invitation to arm up and go looking for trouble. Like Rittenhouse, they’re likely to find it.
Let’s all step back from the brink.
William Barth is the former Editor of the Beloit Daily News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.