The Kyle Rittenhouse case shows terrible things happen when the state is absent


Kyle Rittenhouse was 17 years old when he showed up on August 25, 2020 in the American city of Kenosha after the brutal Black Lives Matter protest, armed with a semi-automatic rifle. On November 19, 18-year-old Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges related to the murder of three men, two of whom died of their wounds. He acted, the court ruled, in lawful self-defense. He and those he shot were white.

One half of the country is furious calling Rittenhouse – according to New Yorker – “American Vigilante”. President Joe Biden said he remained “angry and worried,” after the verdict, while other Democrats expressed their concern in much harsher terms.

The other half of the country has a completely different point of view. One Republican politician Anthony Sabatini of Florida described Rittenhouse as an “American hero”; Congresswoman Madison Cowthorne offered him an internship. These supporters agree with Rittenhouse’s account of the events: he traveled to Kenosha to defend the city from rioters, that he took a pistol to defend himself, and that he shot it in desperate need.

Whichever side was right about the morality of his actions, the Rittenhouse case served as a poignant reminder of what rioting really looked like. Last summer, just before the Kenosha riots broke out, left-wing media outlets around the world ran articles downplaying the violence taking place in American cities.

GQ published an article “Why Violent Protests Work.” Opinion in The keeper suggested that America may “soon reap extraordinary benefits from this temporary upheaval of the usual order.” And writer and activist Vicki Osterweil promoted her 2019 book, titled In Defense of Looting: A Violent History of Uncivil Acts, who argued that riots and looting “ripped, torn apart, burned and destroyed in order to give birth to a new world.”

I am familiar with bien pensant defense of violent disorder. As a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, I took a course that included a week in British Riot History. I vividly remember sitting in a seminar and listening to fellow students insist that the riots were a direct expression of political marginalization – “the language of the unheard of,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it. I asked shyly if the overrepresentation of men among the rioters might mean that some other factor might be at work. There was no answer.

In the UK, riot is defined as 12 or more people who use or threaten unlawful violence, causing others to feel fear; but this is by necessity a rather bloodless definition. In common parlance, we use the word “riot” to denote total chaos – a situation so dangerously unstable that the representatives of the state are forced to leave. And when there is no state, terrible things can happen.

There is an unusual video filmed by the Australian news team in Minneapolis during the riots last May. It starts right after the man is stabbed. The perpetrator, who is white, is being targeted by members of the public awaiting the arrival of the police. The victim, black, is receiving basic first aid nearby, desperate for an ambulance.

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But this is a riot. You cannot just call the emergency services as usual. Someone brings an ordinary car and tries to shove the victim inside, but they fail. Minute after minute passes, and the victim is still left unaided. What if no one comes, you start thinking.

After all, they do it. The police arrive, but they cannot get through the crowd that is throwing bricks at them. They fire flashbangs and the crowd retreats. The perpetrator is arrested and the police create a ring around the victim so that paramedics can pass. They pick him up and retreat when the madness resumes.

Something similar happened during the 2011 riots in the UK, except it wasn’t filmed by a production crew and it didn’t have a happy ending. When a teenager attacked 68-year-old Richard Mannington Bowes on a street in Ealing, west London on August 8, several police officers watched the attack from afar. But they had to wait for the riot police officers to push back the rebels before they could offer any help; Mannington Bowes later died in hospital. He was one of five people killed during these riots.

For most people, “what if no one comes?” – a frightening thought. But if you are a young man with a thirst for adventure, rebellion can be exciting. It seems plausible that Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha on the night of August 25, 2020 with an eye on adventure, perhaps alongside more active impulses.

Legally, Rittenhouse was still a child at that time, but historically, 17-year-old boys take up arms and go to meet the conflict. Riot is a game for young people. It’s scary, ugly and unpredictable. And this led to a scenario in which a teenager wandering the streets of a burning city with semi-automatic weapons encounters adult men who were not afraid of confrontation. Violent disorder attracts such people. The Rittenhouse case is an indictment of the political class that allowed this situation to develop, and the intellectual class that is happy to “rip, rip, burn and destroy,” but then resists the inevitable consequences.


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