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The Impunity is the Point


Another outstanding essay by Adam Serwer, which among other things situates the affirmative Republican celebration of the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse (as opposed to defenses of the jury’s application of the existing law in Wisconsin) in the larger conservative project and the American way of private violence:

As the historian Caroline Light writes in Stand Your Ground, English common-law traditionally held that self-defense could be invoked only as long as one attempted to retreat, if possible. There were important exceptions such as defending one’s home, a concept known today as the “castle doctrine.” In the aftermath of Reconstruction, American courts began expanding the circumstances under which certain men could invoke the right of self-defense; an Ohio court determined in 1876 that “a true man, who is without fault, is not obliged to fly from an assailant, who by violence or surprise maliciously seeks to take his life, or to do him enormous bodily harm.” In the 21st century, state legislatures passed legislation such as “stand-your-ground laws” that extended the circumstances under which “self-defense” could be invoked further. But from the beginning, such laws were bound up in the perceived social morality of the invoker, and those whom the right was being invoked against. The “true man” could take his castle anywhere.

Consequently, which acts of violence are considered legitimate self-defense has always been highly political. For most of American history, white men alone had a right of self-defense that included both their persons and property. Although the concept of armed self-defense is not inherently racist in the abstract—many 1960s civil-rights figures bore arms when not protesting—in practice the American legal system has tended to see certain claims of self-defense as more legitimate than others. “Our embrace of lethal self-defense has always been selective and partial,” Light argues, “upholding a selective right to kill for some, while posing others as legitimate targets.”


he fact that Rittenhouse has become a folk hero among Republicans points to darker currents within the GOP, where justifications for political violence against the opposition are becoming more common. The party finds the apocalyptic fear of impending leftist tyranny useful not only for turning out its supporters, but also for rationalizing legislative attempts to disenfranchise, gerrymander, and otherwise nullify the votes of Democratic constituencies. Engineering the American political system so that Republicans’ political rivals are unable to contest their power is a less forceful solution than killing people, but the political goal is similar: to never have to share power with those they disagree with.

For this reason, the party defends those who engage in rhetoric threatening violence against their political enemies and silences those who denounce it. Whether it’s Donald Trump justifying his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, Republican members of Congress threatening their colleagues, or Fox News hosts praising Rittenhouse for “doing what the government should have done,” the desire to kill your political opponents is a sentiment no longer confined to the dark corners of the internet. The principle that canonizes Rittenhouse as a saint for defending his city from rioters, and the mob that stormed the Capitol as martyrs, is the principle that the slaughter of the right’s enemies is no crime.

“At this point, we’re living under corporate and medical fascism. This is tyranny,” said an attendee at an event held by the conservative group Turning Point USA in October. “When do we get to use the guns?” The audience responded with applause. “How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” Most of this is idle bluster from keyboard gangsters on social media. But the more it is encouraged by mainstream political leadership, the less likely it is to remain mere talk.

Rittenhouse’s trial was a matter of law, and the outcome should not have been dependent on the political questions raised by the events that led to his indictment. But his acquittal will be seen by some on the militant right as a validation of the sentiment that someday, perhaps soon, they will get to kill all “these people.” No one they would listen to will tell them otherwise.

Definitely read it all.

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