This week, a Wisconsin jury will be asked to decide the fate of 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who is charged with shooting three men, killing two of them and injuring one, in the midst of a protest against excessive use of force by police. (Rittenhouse claims he was acting in self-defense when he fired all of the shots.)
Wisconsin’s governor has already authorized deployment of 500 National Guard troops to Kenosha ahead of any verdict announcement.
But I’m not particularly focused on the jury’s verdict; instead, I’ll be watching our reaction to it. That’s because our response to a duly rendered jury decision while we’re already at a violent flashpoint in America will speak volumes about the future of our institutions and the rule of law. So far, the signs aren’t good.
Wisconsin’s governor has already authorized deployment of 500 National Guard troops to Kenosha ahead of any verdict announcement, and in Chicago — over 65 miles away — the police department has canceled leave for its officers. Those actions make sense because threat intelligence includes reporting that an alleged right-wing extremist group, Kenosha Strong Patriots, shared the home address of Rittenhouse prosecutor Thomas Binger, causing him to implement security measures. Police also spotted someone video-recording jurors in the trial as they stepped onto a bus, leading officers to take the person’s cellphone and delete the video. And on the social media platform Telegram, someone in the Kenosha Strong Patriots group room seemed to predict that the far left, not the right, would act out violently after the verdict:
“Praying for you all. And especially for Kyle. I hope you prepare for staying home for a couple weeks while the left wages war on your city. Just like how feds setup Jan 6, I don’t want them to use you to tarnish our movement. We can’t take the bait. Love you all.”
But these security concerns are merely a manifestation of the increasingly malevolent nature of many in our society. If your instincts are telling you we’re living in increasingly threatening times — the evidence supports what you’re sensing. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about increasing concerns over violence and threats by domestic extremists against Congress, schools and health officials. The Capitol Police Department reported that threats against members of Congress have more than doubled this year over last year.
A recent New York Times article spoke of the “mainstreaming of menace” across GOP leadership:
“Threats of violence have become commonplace among a significant part of the party, as historians and those who study democracy warn of a dark shift in American politics.”
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., last week posted a disturbing anime image depicting him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., an act that has yet to be condemned by his GOP colleagues. And, emblematic of the role of senior GOP leaders in providing license for such behavior, a recorded interview of former President Donald Trump by author Jonathan Karl reveals Trump defending his followers who chanted about hanging former Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6.
How we collectively and separately process the Rittenhouse verdict will signal something else: how we relate to our justice system and the rule of law.
Yes, we are deeply polarized. Yes, many have demonized those who think and vote differently. And, yes, we’ve even lost friends and loved ones over our differences. Those are mostly people issues — how we relate to one another. But regardless of our respective political stances, how we collectively and separately process the Rittenhouse verdict will signal something else: how we relate to our justice system and the rule of law.
No matter the jury’s verdict or our opinions of it or of the judge, the prosecutor or the defendant, if we can no longer accept a valid — even flawed — court proceeding, including our fellow citizens’ jury service, without violence or property destruction, we’ve got more than a people problem. We’ll have the continuing crumbling of a foundational component of our democracy — the rule of law and the courts that uphold it. That’s why our response to the outcome of the Rittenhouse trial may become a verdict about all of us and the future of our democratic institutions.