Breaking Down the Narratives Surrounding the Kyle Rittenhouse Shooting

Kyle Rittenhouse may not be a murderer, but he is most certainly not a hero. On the contrary, the 17-year-old teenager should have been nowhere near Kenosha, Wisconsin on the night that he ended up shooting multiple men, killing two of them and seriously wounding a third.

Rittenhouse and his lawyers are claiming that he acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, during the chaos in Kenosha. They say he was also just defending himself when he shot 26-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz in the arm after Grosskreutz drew his own gun on Rittenhouse during the pursuit that followed Rosenbaum’s death. 

In a New York Times analysis of synchronized video footage captured on the night of the shooting, we can see Rittenhouse attempting to flee as Rosenbaum chases him through a parking lot. During that chase, an unidentified person fires their handgun into the air, at which point Rittenhouse turns around. Rosenbaum catches up to Rittenhouse and reportedly tries to take Rittenhouse’s rifle. Rittenhouse opens fire, and Rosenbaum is killed.

Rittenhouse tries to leave the scene but is pursued by onlookers. After he trips and falls, Anthony Huber lunges at him with a skateboard. Rittenhouse shoots Huber, who falls to the ground and dies. Gaige Grosskreutz moves in with his weapon drawn, and Rittenhouse fires again, hitting Grosskreutz once in the right arm. Grosskreutz then withdraws. Rittenhouse is later seen approaching police with his hands raised in the air, but the police race right past him. 

Rittenhouse’s defenders argue that the video footage proves he did indeed act in self-defense. Rosenbaum, many of them say, is the real culprit, since it was his decision to chase and attack a retreating Rittenhouse that led to the first shooting. Many of Rittenhouse’s critics beg to differ. Some have even argued that his decision to show up in Kenosha with a rifle that he was not legally permitted to carry is prima facie evidence of an intent to kill.

There are many competing narratives that have emerged from this tragedy, but very few of them are centered around what we know to be true about this case. Many of them are instead based upon unproven assumptions, contextless snippets of information, and unconfirmed accounts about the events that precipitated the shooting. A good number of them are also rooted in dubious moral reasoning that deserves to be called out and challenged. The most irresponsible narratives, though, may be the ones that frame this incident as a straightforward case of good versus evil despite the many questions that have yet to be answered.

Let’s break some of these narratives down into their basic parts and see whether they stand up to scrutiny. 

The men who attacked Rittenhouse all had criminal records. One of them was even convicted of a sexual offense against a juvenile and spent over a decade behind bars. They got what they deserved!

Ironically, this type of argument is most frequently deployed by self-described law-and-order conservatives even though it flies in the face of everything they claim to stand for. In the American legal system, once you’ve been held accountable for your crimes and paid your debt to society, you’re entitled to nearly all the same rights and privileges as every other citizen. Among those rights is, of course, the right to life. Kyle Rittenhouse took that right away from two of the men he shot in Kenosha. That decision cannot be justified by pointing to the criminal records of the deceased men. It can only be justified if, as Robert VerBruggen explained in National Review, Rittenhouse reasonably believed that he had to resort to lethal force “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” to himself.

So yes, it is true that Rosenbaum and Huber both had substantial criminal records, as does Gaige Grosskreutz. But those records are not at all relevant to the question of whether Rittenhouse’s actions were warranted. Any conservative that claims to respect “law and order” would do to well to keep that in mind before suggesting that formerly incarcerated individuals who have already been punished by the criminal justice system deserve to be gunned down in the streets by private citizens.

Rittenhouse was asking for trouble. He knowingly put himself in a volatile situation, and he shouldn’t have had that gun. He has no right to claim that he was just defending himself!

This is an impossibly difficult argument to defend, and one that can easily be spun around and applied to at least two of the men Rittenhouse shot that night. You could argue, for instance, that Joseph Rosenbaum “put himself in a volatile situation” when, earlier in the night, he was caught on video talking trash to a group of armed men and trying to bait them into a confrontation. You could also say that Gaige Grosskreutz was asking for trouble when he, like Rittenhouse, chose to bring a weapon with him to the protest—especially since his prior convictions may make it illegal for him to possess a firearm. 

I haven’t heard anyone on the left concede either of those points. I suspect that’s because they understand that the poor judgment Rosenbaum and Grosskreutz both displayed prior to the shooting has no bearing on the question of whether the actions they took against Rittenhouse were illegal or not. Along those same lines, the poor judgment Rittenhouse displayed when he chose to show up armed in Kenosha is not sufficient proof that he crossed any moral boundaries or committed any crimes when he opened fire on Rosenbaum and Grosskreutz. If he is guilty of the charges that have been brought against him, or if his actions were morally unjustified, it isn’t because he chose to go to Kenosha with a rifle strapped over his shoulder.

Furthermore, it is absurd to suggest that Rittenhouse forfeited his right to self-defense when he showed up to the protest with a weapon. As we’ve established, bringing a lethal weapon into a tense situation that has the potential to become violent is typically a stupid thing to do. But it doesn’t mean you aren’t permitted to defend yourself against someone who intends to do you serious harm, or perhaps even kill you. Were that not the case, the protesters and rioters could have done anything they wanted to Rittenhouse—assault him, rob him, beat him unconscious, or even execute him in cold blood—and, instead of shooting his attacker(s), he would have had to just sit there and let it happen. That is a self-evidently unreasonable position to take.

Kyle was just doing what the government has either failed to do or refuses to do—impose order on a chaotic and violent situation. He’s a hero for stepping up!

This is one of the most irresponsible narratives circulating around conservative social media. To be clear, Kyle Rittenhouse is not a hero. At best, he’s an overzealous juvenile who showed up at a protest that he should not have attended and was forced to defend himself when the situation spun out of control. At worst, he’s an overzealous juvenile who freaked out when things went south, murdered two people, and severely injured a third. Regardless of whether he is found guilty of the allegations against him or not, he made an awfully bad call that night, and it will likely haunt him for the rest of his life. 

It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that he believed he was doing the right thing. But he never should have gone to Kenosha. He’s not a trained officer of the law. He had neither a right nor a responsibility to police the crowds of troublemakers who poured into the streets for the express purpose of inciting violence and destruction.

It’s perfectly natural for kids to fantasize about playing the role of the hero and enjoying all the benefits and rewards that come with it. Grandiose delusions are a normal part of youth. But adults aren’t supposed to encourage young people to act on those delusions. On the contrary, we’re supposed to be there to remind young people of the important distinctions that differentiate fantasy from reality. It’s our job to warn them that heroism doesn’t always lead to a happy ending, that good intentions don’t always inspire rational actions, and that real-world violence isn’t as clean and tidy as it’s often portrayed in movies and television.

There is a very thin line between reckless vigilantism and righteous rationality. Conservatives who treat Rittenhouse like a celebrity are blurring that line and encouraging other would-be teenaged vigilantes to follow in his footsteps. That’s the precise opposite of what we need right now. Right now, we need de-escalation. Right now, we need to restore calm and order, not ruin any chance of it by provoking pimply-faced juveniles into taking up arms and patrolling the streets of riot-stricken cities. 

The men who Rittenhouse murdered were heroes. They were trying to stop a dangerous killer!

This narrative, which has become quite popular among many on the left, is also very tough to defend. Grosskreutz and Huber may indeed have thought that Rittenhouse was a dangerous killer when they chose to go after him. And in the eyes of those who are already convinced that Rittenhouse is guilty of murder, Grosskreutz and Huber may very well look like genuine heroes for intervening. 

Rosenbaum, on the other hand, is probably not a hero at all. In fact, he might turn out to be the biggest villain in this story. 

We don’t yet know for certain why Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse across a parking lot and allegedly tried to wrestle Rittenhouse’s rifle away from him. Is it possible Rittenhouse provoked Rosenbaum? Maybe so. One of the protesters in Kenosha—a man named Jeremiah—has claimed that Rittenhouse aimed his rifle at Jeremiah earlier that night. Perhaps Rittenhouse did the same thing to Rosenbaum, which in turn spurred the latter into action. 

It is also possible, however, that Rosenbaum was the one itching for a fight. Given the aforementioned footage of Rosenbaum repeatedly yelling “shoot me, n***a” at a group of armed men in a parking lot, it would hardly be surprising if we discovered that Rosenbaum targeted Rittenhouse for no good reason at all. And if it does turn out that Rosenbaum instigated this tragic affair by needlessly chasing after Rittenhouse, then not only would it be absurd to call Rosenbaum a hero, but it might even be fair to conclude that the blame for both his own death and the death of Huber falls entirely on his shoulders. 

There are no winners in this story.

Of all the narratives to emerge from this incident, this is the one that rings most true. Did Kyle Rittenhouse act in self-defense? The available evidence does seem to favor his claim that he did, but we can’t say for sure. It’s up to a court of law to make that determination. 

What we can say for sure, however, is that there are indeed no winners in this story. This shooting should have never happened in the first place. Cooler heads should have prevailed at some point before the first shots were fired. Someone should have told Rittenhouse to stay out of Kenosha. Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz probably shouldn’t have been out on the streets that night either in light of their criminal histories. This story is one full of rash decisions that shouldn’t have been made and a lack of foresight that robbed two people of their lives and a teenager of his innocence—and perhaps even his freedom. It’s regrettable that things played out the way they did, but hopefully, the right lessons will be learned from this, and the proper authorities will finally step up and do what needs to be done to prevent something like it from happening again.

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