A little over a year ago, after thinking I wouldn’t go with the crowd and write yet another Kyle Rittenhouse take, I wrote a Kyle Rittenhouse take here on this blog. It had been a long time coming. It came from a place of anger at the cruel, slanderous things I was seeing people direct at a kid whose worst sin appeared to be getting lost in a crowd. It grated on me that even pieces offering “reasonable” takes had to qualify every statement in Kyle’s defense with some caveat about how dumb and irresponsible he was. Takes like these framed Rittenhouse as if he was, at best, a foolish child LARP-ing about and spoiling for a fight, when all the available evidence painted a much more nuanced picture.
But the worst take I hammered on was a Gospel Coalition piece by K. Edward Copeland, a black pastor who exemplified the worst of the knee-jerk, slanderous impulses I was seeing in mainstream media—except here I was reading them from a Christian minister, in a Christian outlet. The whole essay is a sustained exercise in passive-aggression, but the worst pull-quote was a section where Copeland had the gall to mention Rittenhouse in the same breath as the racist killer Dylan Roof, classifying both as “mass shooters.” The irony was thick: Copeland spent the whole essay lamenting the depersonalization/objectification of “black and brown bodies,” only to prove that in his eyes, all white boys with a gun look the same.
Fast-forwarding to the other week, with the trial underway, I decided to re-share the piece, because precisely nothing had changed. Everything was the same, except worse. The same sorts of self-styled “reasonable” voices were lining up to offer their “balanced” takes, which still functionally threw Rittenhouse under the bus, just in a centrist accent. Meanwhile, the vitriol and slander was only intensified. So I dusted off my take and tweeted it out, saying it appeared to be relevant again.
A few accounts picked up my re-share. This appears to have spawned a renewed focus on the old Gospel Coalition essay, which snowballed to such an extent that Daily Wire just did a piece on the collective call for a retraction. I’m just deducing that my article was the singularity here, though I could be wrong, since I wasn’t the only one who’d drawn attention to the TGC piece, just the most recent. In any case, however the calls to retract got started, I support them. The essay was disgraceful. Dare I say, it was “foolish and reckless.” Pulling from the Coalition’s ad copy here, it was neither “timely,” nor “winsome,” nor “wise.” If Pastor Copeland bothered to watch Kyle’s testimony from the trial, including the part where Kyle had a nervous breakdown while recalling the moment when he was surrounded and feared for his life, I have some hope that the good reverend felt a twinge of guilt. I have some hope that he might have regretted his choice to paint Kyle as insouciant and “casual” in the immediate wake of the killings if he’d read reports like this, which describe Kyle as alternately vomiting, hyper-ventilating, and sobbing on the scene. But this hope is probably naive and misplaced. More likely, he would spin Kyle’s tears as “white tears.” Because all white tears are the same, after all.
To those asking “how I would feel” if a black boy had acted exactly as Rittenhouse did, I do not understand the question. You’re asking me how I would feel if a 17-year-old black kid from a broken home, with an alcoholic father and a suicidal sister, who had joined a program for broken youth and made something of himself, upon seeing a poor community where he worked and had family abandoned to burn, decided to step into the gap with friends? And after getting harassed with racist slurs, pursued, attacked, a weapon shoved in his face, defended himself with a gun? Yes, I would feel fine. I would feel more than fine. Next question?
I perceive that David French, meanwhile, is gonna David French. In a development shocking precisely no one, David is here to give us The Actual Correct Take On Kyle Rittenhouse, intoning importantly that he is “no hero,” that he was “recklessly brandishing” his weapon either “as an intimidation tactic or as an intentionally disconcerting display of political identity and defiance,” and on and on (and on). Yes, I realize takes like this are not despicable on the level of the new Waukesha memes which are popping up as I type, turning yesterday’s fresh horror into grotesque jokes about the murderous SUV driver’s “self-defense” plea. I distinguish between the vicious and the merely vacuous. But when the best that can be said about our “balanced” takes is that they are merely vacuous, we have a problem, Houston.
One friend of mine who’s a father said he wouldn’t have sent his son to Kenosha alone. He would have gone with him, and they would have walked the streets together—not to pick a fight, not hoping for someone to shoot, simply prepared, in an unstable and violent situation, in between putting out fires and offering first aid. Of course, sadly, Kyle’s father was not with him. But the fact that Kyle was there in an attempt to protect and serve rather than being among the rioters himself is a credit to the men (including policemen) who fathered him in the absence of his own father. And he did serve. By his own testimony, he assisted in putting out a fire. (And to the people snarking that “he didn’t need a gun to do that,” as if these fires were just sort of…popping up, rather than being set by violent, destructive arsonists…yeah, miss me with all that.)
Was Kyle Rittenhouse a hero? I might reserve the word if only because words are precious, and I hesitate to inflate them. Certainly, Kyle Rittenhouse wanted to be a hero, like many boys before him. Like this boy who joined the Marines at 14, celebrated his 17th birthday at sea, jumped on two grenades to save his buddies in Iwo Jima, then came back home to finish high school with the Medal of Honor around his neck. The men accepted him when they realized he was 17. They thought he might make himself useful. They weren’t wrong. I know a couple 17-year-olds who might have tried to make themselves similarly useful, had they been born in another time.
Perhaps this is the true tragedy of Kyle Rittenhouse: that he is a boy born out of time. A boy born in a time when you can cry in a courtroom and your ugly crying face shows up in everyone’s socials a few hours later. A boy born in a time when your overworked, plain-looking mother can be dragged on Twitter by a gaggle of bitchy phone-filtered Instagram models.
One could perhaps contest the precise manner in which a 17-year-old boy tried to fill a man-shaped hole that August night. One could contest the wisdom of using a type of gun he wasn’t technically licensed to carry. But who honestly thinks the takes would have run much differently had Kyle been one year older?
What should Kyle’s next steps be? I’m not sure. I want him to get his just deserts in defamation suits. But I also want him to heal. I want him to get good counseling. I want him to avoid red and blue spotlights. Based on the clip that’s going around from his Tucker appearance, he seems to have carried himself remarkably well considering what he’s been through. But he should keep such appearances limited. Nobody has a claim on Kyle Rittenhouse. I’m echoed on this point by my eminently sensible friend Ben Sixsmith, one of the few journalists left who writes what he thinks, and has thoughts worth writing down. “Sharks are circling,” he warns young Kyle, wisely.
What do we call Kyle, in the end? Not a murderer. He’s not guilty of murder. Is he guilty of anything else? Maybe. Maybe he was guilty of over-optimism. Maybe he was guilty of a failure to see a courtroom in his future. But he was focused on the present. He knew something was deeply wrong. He knew people and their livelihoods were at risk, and someone needed to help. And he wanted, desperately, to be that someone.
And for that, Kyle Rittenhouse was no fool.