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Red People Too Happy, Blue People Too Mad
Remembering the O.J. trial on the day of Rittenhouse's acquittal
I don’t have any particularly strong views about the Rittenhouse acquittal, because I try not to have strong views on high-profile trials in general. That’s a matter of policy with me, and it’s a policy I came to early on, in the wake of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which a huge number of people, both people I knew and media personalities, invested with great symbolic significance that it did not deserve. Yes, I believed at the time and I still believe that Simpson’s acquittal was a gross miscarriage of justice. But gross miscarriages of justice happen all the time, for a host of reasons. Juries are squirrelly, judges are biased, facts are slippery and the law is arcane. Most often of all, miscarriages of justice happen because of massive inequities in our society that leave many of those caught up in the criminal justice system nearly defenseless before the onslaught of a hostile state while, at the same time, many criminals are never caught, but continue to prey on the innocent with impunity.
So with that in mind, it was clear to me that the meaning of Simpson’s acquittal was largely nugatory. A rich celebrity got away with murder; I’m shocked. That’s not how most people saw it at the time, though. Most people saw it as fraught with meaning, either as a synecdoche for the brokenness of American justice as a whole, or as a much-deferred blow against that system’s entrenched injustice. Chris Rock’s line from the time—“Black people too happy, White people too mad”—still sounds right to me, and it strikes me as equally applicable to any case you would care to name, including the Rittenhouse case just concluded with an acquittal on all counts. We can pick at the decision itself all we like, but in the end, you can’t get social justice from a trial verdict, no matter which way it goes. You just can’t.
The right question, it seems to me, isn’t “was this a just verdict” but rather the one Eric Levitz asks in this piece, namely: if it is the correct verdict, on the facts and on the law, then what are the implications? The most important implication, he says, is that everyone involved had a legitimate right to self-defense, meaning that, rationally, they all should have shot first and asked questions later:
Rittenhouse’s killing of Rosenbaum may have been lawful. But that was scarcely self-evident to the bystanders who heard gunshots and then saw a killer holding an AR-15. The group of protesters who proceeded to chase and attack Rittenhouse could have reasonably believed that killing the armed teenager was necessary to save others from imminent bodily harm. If Rittenhouse had a right to shoot Huber and Grosskreutz in self-defense, the latter had a similarly legitimate basis for shooting Rittenhouse dead.
Put differently: Once Rittenhouse fired his first shots, he and his attackers plausibly entered a context in which neither could be held legally liable for killing the other. Whether one emerged from this confrontation legally innocent or lawfully executed hinged on little more than one’s relative capacity for rapidly deploying lethal violence. Rittenhouse had a more powerful weapon and a quicker trigger finger than Huber or Grosskreutz. Thus, he walks free, in full health, while Huber lies in a grave and Grosskreutz gets by without the bulk of his right bicep.
Levitz goes on to compare the case to the Travis McMichael trial for killing Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the killing of Breonna Taylor. In all of these cases, the argument for the defense implies that nobody would be at fault even if someone were killed. When Kenneth Walker fired at the police officers who entered his home unannounced, he was acting in self-defense. The officers claimed precisely the same thing when they returned fire. Had Arbery successfully taken McMichael’s gun and shot him with it, he would probably have a stronger claim of self-defense than McMichael himself does.
I’m inclined to agree with Levitz that such a situation is incompatible with law and order as such. If people roam the streets armed and looking for trouble—a description that applies to both Rittenhouse and Grosskreutz from what I’ve read—then they are bound to find it. If, when they find it, they can use their weapons and claim impunity due to self-defense, then I don’t see how one could expect anything less than anarchy. Unfortunately, it’s not even clear that narrowing the scope of self-defense claims would change anything in situations where both parties are armed. If you can’t defend yourself against an armed opponent whom you rationally believe wants to do you harm, then when can you defend yourself? Meanwhile, if you did narrow such claims, you’d be as likely to wind up prosecuting victims of domestic violence who finally defended themselves as you would the Travis McMichaels of the world.
Should we, then, focus on limiting ready access to firearms? Good luck accomplishing that in America, where even minimal attempts at gun control have fueled legal gun purchases on a massive scale, and where the experiences of people like Ahmaud Arbery very rationally lead plenty of Black Americans in particular to conclude that what they really need is to make sure they have armed and prepared to defend themselves. (Not that it helped Philando Castile.)
It’s a depressing place to end up, and I assume it’s going to get worse rather than better. Robert Heinlein once said that “an armed society is a polite society,” which sounds like it means: an armed populace will be wary of starting fights that could prove fatal. There’s precious little evidence in America today that this is true. What he really meant was that societies that are armed to the teeth are very prepared to start fights, not in self-defense but over trivial slights, and develop codes of honor to communicate that willingness and structure violence that is nonetheless extremely common. There’s precious little evidence of that either, though. Our society is both armed to the teeth and bristling with hostility, and not only don’t we clearly communicate our intentions but we barely speak a common language.
I’m really not looking forward to finding out what a heavily armed, profoundly rude and increasingly delusional society looks like.