There are typically two levels in a case like Rittenhouse’s, the individual issues of justice and accountability, and the social implications of the crime and its judicial resolution. I want to spend a moment with the second.
America faces an impending crisis of vigilante suppression of democratic rights. In the past year we’ve seen militias openly threatening violence in takeovers of state capitals, the Capitol Building in Washington and the streets that have seen protests against police brutality and similar issues. Militias have brought guns to their own protests against vaccination, mask orders, and other public health actions by state and local government.
Maybe this is the highwater mark of the militia movement, but maybe not. There will certainly be flashpoints in the coming years where political tensions will be intense. A videoed police murder might set off a new wave of BLM-ish actions. There may (and should) be mass events demanding action on climate change. Above all, there is a significant chance that political interference may cause the 2024 election to be visibly (and actually) stolen, which would trigger a tsunami of large-scale demonstrations and direct action activities. An important question is whether armed right wing thugs will be permitted to suppress them.
We are in a difficult situation. In much or most of the country, police are either passively or actively supportive of vigilantes. This was transparent in Kenosha, where, even after he had shot an unarmed, mentally disturbed man and tried to surrender to the police, Rittenhouse was allowed to go his way. There are similar indications in my home state of Oregon. We can’t rely on the police to curb the militias.
Even when armed paramilitaries kill protesters, we have learned from the Rittenhouse case they stand a good chance of being acquitted. Granted, the criminal law is not an ideal line of defense against a political strategy like vigilante intimidation, since it is constructed around the question of individual culpability. Indeed, Rittenhouse might well have been innocent in purely legal terms, even though his actions were part of a pattern of vigilante social control.
This leaves the legislative route as the only alternative. Here we are hemmed in by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the second amendment. Broadly written gun control laws will be declared unconstitutional. Ironically, the language of the amendment itself justifies an armed citizenry on the grounds of a supposed need for a “well-regulated militia”. What that qualifier means is obscure, but private militias are exactly the threat from which we need deliverance.
It might not survive Supreme Court scrutiny, but I would again urge, as a matter of priority, legislation at every level that prohibits bringing firearms to any political venue—a public building, a political rally, a demonstration or any event or gathering where political demands or deliberations take place. We desperately need to disarm our politics before it’s too late. If the Rittenhouse verdict tells us nothing else, it’s that we are approaching the point of no return.