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In the Rittenhouse Case, Justice Is (to Some Extent) in the Details

photograph of Lady Justice figurine

The reactions to the Rittenhouse verdict from the right and left have been depressingly predictable. The right — at least, the MAGA right — has chosen to elevate Rittenhouse to the status of folk hero, an everyman vigilante in the grand tradition of real-life subway shooter Bernard Goetz or the fictional Dr. Paul Kersey of the Death Wish film series. (These references to the ‘70s and ‘80s should remind us that we’ve been here before). On this telling, Kyle Rittenhouse did nothing wrong by toting an assault rifle to a riot in order to protect other people’s property — in fact, his behavior was commendable because it helped bring law and order to a chaotic situation. Among other things, this story overlooks the fact that Wisconsin law categorically forbids the use of lethal force for the sole purpose of defending property. So, if Rittenhouse had used his weapon for that purpose, he would have broken the law. How threatening to break the law helps impose law and order is, frankly, beyond my powers to explain.

Meanwhile, the left has portrayed the Rittenhouse case as another example of how our justice system is broken. From this perspective, whether or not the jury’s application of Wisconsin self-defense law was reasonable is really irrelevant; what matters is that it was legal for Rittenhouse and others to traipse around Kenosha playing soldier, and that two men ended up dead without anyone being held legally accountable. On top of this, there is the fact that the verdict may very well have been different if Rittenhouse had been a person of color.

These perspectives on the case have something in common: they both minimize the importance of the narrow question, did Rittenhouse act reasonably in self-defense? For the right, the morally important thing is that Rittenhouse killed some scumbags for a good cause; whether he did it in self-defense is almost beside the point. For the left, the morally important thing is that various structures — legal (open carry laws, defendant-friendly self-defense laws), political (Republican domination of state legislatures through gerrymandering allowing passage of those laws), and social (white privilege causing police to treat white shooters differently from Black) — determined the verdict. Again, the granular details of the case, the kinds of details that would help us determine whether or not Rittenhouse acted reasonably in self-defense, fade into the background.

Without question, the left’s view has more truth in it than the right’s. It should go without saying that it is morally reprehensible to shoot a person for destroying property, or that it is morally irrelevant that Joseph Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse’s first victim, was (perhaps) a registered sex offender. Vigilantism might slake a primal thirst for vengeance, but it is among the slipperiest of moral slopes.

Still, I think the left misses something important by omitting examination of the case details. To see this, consider the following (slightly involved) counterfactual. Suppose that Trump is assassinated by a Chinese-American, touching off protests and then riots in parts of cities where many businesses are owned by Asians. Some left-wing folk from the surrounding area bring weapons to protect Asian-owned property. Among them is Brian, a 17-year-old gun enthusiast and lifeguard.

At some point during the night, Brian wanders from the store he came to guard and approaches some rioters. At the subsequent trial, Brian’s counsel presents eyewitness evidence that one rioter shouted at Brian that he was going to kill him; others testify that this rioter was hyper aggressive and belligerent that night, although a prosecution witness, another armed left-wing guardian of property, testifies that he was a “clown.” In turn, the prosecution presents blurry video footage and stills that it claims shows that Brian pointed his weapon at one of the rioters, but the footage is difficult to interpret. There is no dispute about what happens next: the rioter takes off after Brian, and Brian runs away. He flees into a parking lot where — and this is disputed at trial — he may be boxed in by some parked cars. He wheels around. The rioter screams “fuck you!” and charges toward Brian, while a nearby rioter fires a pistol into the air. Prosecution witnesses testify that a moment later, the rioter tried to grab Brian’s gun. In any case, autopsy evidence later shows that the rioter’s hands were at least very close to the barrel of the gun. Brian fires four times in less than three-quarters of a second — the first shot shatters the rioter’s pelvis, but it is the third shot into his back that kills him.

Brian flees the scene, pursued by a group of rioters, many of whom quite possibly believe that Brian is an active shooter. Some throw rocks at Brian. One rioter wielding a skateboard catches up to Brian, and whether because the rioter strikes him with the skateboard or because he just trips — this is a disputed point — Brian falls down. Fortunately, this scene is captured by cell phone cameras at very close range, so there is much less dispute about what happens next. Another rioter attempts to kick Brian in the face; Brian fires two shots at him as he rolls on the ground, but both miss. The rioter with the skateboard hits him with it, then tries to grab Brian’s gun. Brian shoots, hitting the rioter in the chest. A third individual, who is holding a pistol in his right hand, is at that moment raising his arms. Then the armed man lowers his arms and walks around Brian. At that moment, it is unclear whether the armed man points his pistol at Brian. Under examination by defense counsel, the man himself testifies that he did, but he later recants that statement. In any case, Brian then shoots the armed man, blowing off his right bicep. Brian gets to his feet and flees.

Suppose that a jury acquits Brian, accepting that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Brian had not acted in self-defense. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine that the left-leaning commentariat would celebrate Brian as an everyman vigilante (although perhaps some would lionize him as a warrior for racial justice). Perhaps it would concede that the 17-year-old shouldn’t have been there, and that open carry laws encourage such vigilantism. Still, I think the left would focus on the details of the case and of the relevant law. In other words, the left would take Brian’s self-defense claim seriously.

Sometimes, considering these kinds of counterfactuals can help us see things with greater moral clarity. On the other hand, sometimes they just reveal a bias. I do not, however, think that’s the case here. The left would be right to focus on the details of Brian’s self-defense case. By the same token, despite the many structural factors that shaped the outcome of the Rittenhouse trial, whether or not Rittenhouse reasonably feared for his life in the moments leading up to the shootings is morally relevant, because it determines the fairness of punishing him. As long as we continue to believe that people are fairly punished only when their action reveals some fault, their state of mind when acting will be of paramount importance.

This brings me to the question whether the Rittenhouse verdict shows that the justice system is broken. I think it’s a mixed picture. On the one hand, Wisconsin’s permissive open carry regime is a travesty. One could also argue that the Wisconsin self-defense law should require the defendant to retreat before using lethal force, even if he has not provoked the attack. I’m not sure that would have made a difference in the Rittenhouse case, but it’s a reasonable proposal. One could also argue that the burden of proof should be on the defense to prove that the defendant acted in self-defense, not on the prosecution to prove that he didn’t. But changing the law in this way is the job of the legislature, not the courts. Moreover, the jury members in the Rittenhouse case clearly took their job very seriously, deliberating for almost four days, reviewing many hours of video, and taking copious notes throughout the trial. This was not an easy case for a jury: it required making highly fact-intensive judgments about the reasonability of a person’s fear in a very chaotic situation. Given the law and the facts, the verdict was at least reasonable. Finally, the possibility that had Rittenhouse been Black, the verdict would have been different does point up the failures of the justice system, but it does not make the Rittenhouse verdict itself unjust.

Undeniably, the Rittenhouse case should prompt a reexamination of state firearms and self-defense laws. But certainly in a procedural sense, and at least partially in a substantive sense, the verdict itself was not a miscarriage of justice. The trial elicited a wealth of relevant factual detail through adversarial presentation, and the jury applied the law to that body of facts in a careful, reasonable way, focusing on the undeniably morally relevant issue of the reasonability of Rittenhouse’s fear. The Rittenhouse verdict is not all bad news.

Kyle Rittenhouse and the Legal/Moral Limits of Self-Defense

photograph of protesters carrying automatic rifles

On August 25th, Kyle Rittenhouse carried a firearm into the protests in Kenosha, WI. He killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and seriously injured Gaige Grosskreutz, 26.

Rittenhouse is being charged with one count of first-degree intentional homicide; one count of first-degree reckless homicide; one count of attempted first-degree intentional homicide; and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment. The Kenosha police chief called the shootings a senseless act of violence on protesters: “We’ve had two people lose their lives senselessly while peacefully protesting,” Chief Miskinis said.

His lawyers, on the other hand, claim that he was “protecting his community,” acting in self-defense: “before Rittenhouse fired his gun, he was ‘accosted,’ ‘verbally threatened and taunted’ by ‘rioters’ while he guarded a mechanic’s shop alongside a group of armed men.” By claiming that Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense the legal team invokes one of the most intuitive exceptions to the prohibition on inflicting harm on another person. But, there are limits, both morally and legally.

Morally speaking, the views on the appropriate use of self-defense are more varied than the range permitted by law. This is of necessity – to allow broad ranges of interpretation in matters that include inflicting harm on one another isn’t conducive to a well-functioning legal system. In ethical theories, the question of self-defense involves slightly different questions than in the realm of law. Legally, you have some right to defend your person — though the conditions differ by jurisdiction — and this presumption already diverges from one moral position: pacifists. Pacifists defend the position that harming another person is never justified. There are pacifists that emphasize that this lack of justification arises because of the alternatives to harm that are ever-present, and this concern does show up in many self-defense statutes. If someone can avoid using force in order to defend themselves, then this can undermine the justification for the use of force (though in WI, there isn’t a “duty to retreat” as there is in other states).

Other pacifists emphasize that the same principle that makes it inappropriate for your assailant to harm you also holds in the case of your harming them. And it gets more complicated because most theorists agree that not all cases of harming someone in order to avoid them harming you are justified. There are limits to when defensive force is permissible even for non-pacifists. Self-defense doesn’t always work as a defense, so to speak.

Imagine if I put myself in the position where I needed to defend myself in the first place. In such circumstances, the role of the “attacker” becomes more murky, and the sense in which I need to defend myself becomes harder to explain. This complicates matters for a number of ethicists. In such a case, if some action of mine could de-escalate the situation or prevent the threat to my safety, then I am not justified in using force to defend myself. Underlying these cases is the idea that we can avoid circumstances where inflicting harm, or at the very least inflicting lethal harm, on assailants. If generalizable, this would undermine the force of the self-defense arguments.

For example: Imagine that I am robbing a house with a firearm, and the homeowner pulls a gun on me, shouting “Make another move and I’ll shoot!” I believe the homeowner to be a little trigger-happy and fear for my life. I shoot the homeowner out of this fear, and thus in self-defense. Was I acting permissibly in shooting the homeowner? According to moral theorists, self-defense doesn’t clearly apply here because the home’s defenders were responding to my use of force. The important feature, arguably, is that I could avoid defending myself by ceasing my aggressive, law-breaking conduct that initiated the exchange. When I threatened the homeowner with lethal force, she was using appropriate force in response. Morally speaking, if I stepped down and ceased posing a threat, the homeowner loses her moral justification for threatening harm to me.

Here the law and these moral theories arrive at similar conclusions (with the Castle Doctrine complicating matters), but with important differences. Legally speaking, breaking a law at the time of defending your safety undermines a claim to self-defense, but not entirely. However, it isn’t purely the lawbreaking that changes the morality of the situation for all ethicists. In this idealized scenario, the threat to my life exists because of my threat to the homeowner. If I stop my threat, I do not need to harm anyone in self-defense.

According to Wisconsin’s self-defense law, people are permitted to “use force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm (if they) reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to (themselves).” The key here is what the defendant reasonably believes. If the defendant’s lawyers can establish that he had a reasonable belief that he needed to use the force he did to prevent imminent death, his self-defense claim may stand. In Wisconsin, there isn’t a duty to retreat before using force. As such, a great deal rests on whether the jury judges that Rittenhouse had a reasonable belief that his use of lethal force was necessary to preserve his life. The jury’s judgment will depend on a variety of interpretative aspects, as none of the defendant’s victims seem to, in fact, be directing lethal force at him according to witnesses and video, and only one was armed at all. But there is often a distance between what is true and what someone reasonably believes is true.

Eric Zorn, news and politics correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, highlights elements of the scenario from both the legal and moral discussion above: “Did the teen willingly put himself in that fraught milieu and illegally, allegedly, risk a horrific escalation of that danger by carrying a gun on the scene? Yes.” Rittenhouse chose to put himself into a potentially lethal situation. In fact, that the situation was dangerous is his reason for being there. For some theorists, this makes a difference in how morally justified he is in using force against his assailants. He could have avoided the risk to his safety and avoided inflicting harm, similar to the armed burglar example.

Zorn also notes: “What about the context, though? The confrontational, high-adrenaline interactions that led up to the tragic deaths. The night air punctuated by gunshots. Danger all around.” From a legal perspective, and also according to some moral theorists, the relevant context is more narrow in scope. It is the setting in which Rittenhouse killed two people and injured another. Did he reasonably feel his life was threatened then? And was lethal force his reasonable route of defense?

Rittenhouse’s lawyers say yes: “In fear for his life and concerned the crowd would either continue to shoot at him or even use his own weapon against him,” the lawyer’s statement says, “Kyle had no choice but to fire multiple rounds towards his immediate attackers.”

But there are further moral and legal issues that the Rittenhouse case represents.

Aside from the question of whether there was a reasonable belief in a lethal threat to his life, Rittenhouse faces further legal scrutiny in his carrying of a firearm illegally. Further, his behavior exists in a context of a culture that is praising violent responses to protests of police violence, and in this case, inciting violence in response to them.

Rittenhouse allegedly did a lot of illegal things. The 17-year-old reports being motivated by a call to protect people and businesses in Kenosha, and arrived with a gun at an auto mechanic’s on August 25th. His lawyers claim that the 17-year-old’s “intent was not to incite violence, but simply to deter property damage and use his training to provide first aid to injured community members.” The lawyers also report: “Rittenhouse and others stood guard at a mechanic’s shop near the car depot, even after the curfew was in effect.” Unfortunately, Rittenhouse’s chosen method of “deterring property damage” was standing guard with an assault-style rifle he was not legally permitted to possess in Wisconsin, or conceal carry in his home state of Illinois.

Rittenhouse is facing misdemeanor charges for his illegal engagement with the assault-style rifle. Meanwhile, the calls for armed response against the protests in Kenosha have come under scrutiny. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” event, hosted by the Kenosha Guard on Tuesday night encouraging armed people to go to Kenosha, was in violation of policies and should have been removed. The direct calls for armed citizens to go to Kenosha were seen as inciting violence, and thus inappropriate on social media. We see their impact in Rittenhouse’s behavior, and the deaths that the calls result in.

In response to these protests, besides directing violence to the protestors themselves, there has been an outpouring of praise towards the people committing the acts of violence. For example, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) praised Rittenhouse’s “incredible restraint” at not emptying his magazine into the crowd. And though he also admitted to not being as aware of the circumstance of the murder of Jacob Blake as the case against Rittenhouse, despite claiming: “As a 17-year-old, he was legally entitled to have that firearm in his possession. This is 100% self-defense.” Likewise, DeAnna Lorraine, a Republican congressional candidate, tweeted: “We need more young people like Kyle Rittenhouse and less like Greta Thunberg.” And even President Trump praised Rittenhouse in a tweet: “The only way you will stop the violence in the high crime Democrat run cities is through strength!”

While praise and comparisons to heroes might not rise to the level of incitement — it does not directly encourage another person to commit a crime — it is still dangerous. So, on the other side of the incitement that drove Rittenhouse, there is the encouragement and positive reinforcement that leads to think pieces about an oncoming Civil War.

When the praise heaped onto a vigilante who acted in response to incitement comes from so many sources, the positive reinforcement becomes dangerous in itself. It doesn’t constitute incitement, but continues to divide cultural battle lines where institutional systems that promote violence are paired individual citizens suppressing voices protesting those systems. This encouragement, the incitement, and the people who act on it are a unified voice against change and institutional reform.

This praise is not for someone acting in self-defense. It is for acts of aggression against people rising up against violence and murder. The mixed messaging regarding the case of Kyle Rittenhouse may complicate the case for self-defense. Is he a brave patriot, fighting on the side of law, justice, and the American way, or a scared innocent simply trying to protect himself?