Conservatives Must Denounce Vigilante Justice
Picture from Business Insider | Jim Watson AFP via Getty Images
On August 25th, when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was taken into custody, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his audience, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” A tweet from Carlson on the same day elaborates this comment. He writes, “Kenosha devolved into anarchy because the authorities abandoned the people. Those in charge, from the governor on down, refused to enforce the law. They’ve stood back and watched Kenosha burn. Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?”
At face value, there may appear to be some truth to these comments. Riots have been destructive, no matter how much CNN tries to declare that they are “mostly peaceful.” Authorities in cities across the country have often failed to protect people and property, although some might argue that this is a legitimate attempt to keep law enforcement officers safe and prevent further escalation. (The city of Kenosha did institute a curfew, but Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis used this as an opportunity to point the finger at “everyone involved” rather than singling out Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide). Furthermore, conservatives have always affirmed that the Constitution protects the right to bear arms for self-defense, and perhaps we do not know the complete facts of this shooting and to what extent Rittenhouse had to defend himself.
Nevertheless, Carlson’s comments are dangerous and conservatives must repudiate them. First of all, Carlson is tone-deaf regarding the circumstances of these events. He declares that Kenosha “devolved into anarchy because authorities abandoned the people.” If authorities have abandoned their responsibilities through a few nights of damage to property and businesses, what about decades of tragedy and racial bias, of wrongly stopping, arresting, and even shooting and killing black Americans? Do these injustices not qualify as abandonment of people whom authorities were supposed to protect? How could we be as quick to empathize with a 17-year-old with a rifle who takes justice into his own hands as we are to revile protestors with a Molotov cocktail who takes justice into their own hands? Are not both responding to failures of government? It’s no more shocking that protesters would respond to police use of deadly force with violence than that Rittenhouse would respond to an assault on property with violence. If we can acknowledge the validity of protestors’ complaints while lamenting their methods, we can apply the same standard on both sides of a conflict. Leave it to Democrats to be the party of double standards.
Second, Carlson’s comments are but one example of Republicans rushing headlong into an electoral strategy that is doomed to fail – and with good reason. Donald Trump has decided to paint himself as the “Law and Order” president – the man who will defend innocent suburbs from the scourge of cities and respond decisively to any and all chaos. To that end, Republicans who follow the president’s lead will now seize on any opportunity to claim that liberal city leaders are encouraging this chaos and doing the opposite of what Trump has promised, even if it means justifying those who respond (without the legal authority to do so) with violence. The problem here isn’t just the justification of violence – though I’ll get to that later. The problem is that in the months since George Floyd’s death in police custody, Americans have acknowledged more clearly the failures of our criminal justice system. While some Republicans, especially Senator Tim Scott, have done a great job of championing police reform policy in order to affect change, the White House’s messaging has largely ignored the racial injustice at the heart of the problem and has instead focused only on the resulting protests. To be sure, most Americans don’t set fire to local businesses, or approve of those who do. But they do understand, or are beginning to understand, what protesters are so angry about. They understand that we can’t just throw a “Law and Order” solution at a problem that started with “Law and Order.” They understand that there’s a middle ground between dismantling police forces altogether and supporting them unquestioningly. And they understand that if “Law and Order” are to be re-established in places where they are now absent, it must be by those who have the authority to re-establish them, not by 17-year-olds with rifles. To restore “Law and Order,” we must first build greater trust between law enforcement and the black community, and endorsing vigilante justice obviously won’t help with that.
Third, Carlson’s comments are intentionally and ruinously divisive. We at the George Washington University would do well to remember the words of Washington’s Farewell Address. He warned against any who would seek to divide this country. It’s worth reading this quote in its entirety:
“It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the
immense value of your national union to your collective and
individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual,
and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to
think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety
and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety;
discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that
it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon
the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our
country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now
link together the various parts.”
As conservatives, we know that we live in a nation founded on values and ideas, and that America is defined by seeking always to live up to those ideas, no matter how poorly the men who originally enshrined these values in our founding documents did so. As Josh Kutner wrote in his 4th of July post, “We seek to create a ‘more perfect union,’ meaning that the process of fully realizing the ideals of the Declaration is ongoing and open-ended.” That phrase – “a more perfect union” – reminds us that our national unity is one of the founding values that we now seek to better uphold. Justifying the shooting of looters or calling it inevitable attempts to break down the bonds that we have as Americans. It acknowledges conflict as an implicitly acceptable alternative to peace. It invites us to meet wrongdoers at their level rather than rising above it. It welcomes the notion that we have more to gain from opposing our fellow Americans than from empathizing and reconciling with them. Washington would be disgusted by such a notion. Again, leave it to Democrats to be the party of division and identity politics. We must aim higher.
Fourth and finally, Carlson’s comments ignore the reality that justice and reconciliation are, in fact, costly. When this time of crisis begins to pass, we must all resume living in each other’s America. And that means we will need to live side by side with those who have hurt us. Families of victims of police brutality will still have to deal with law enforcement. Business owners will have to welcome protestors, for all they know those who were looters or arsonists, as patrons. And it will take difficult, radical acts of peace and forgiveness for this to happen. Brandt Jean understood this. His brother, Botham, was killed by Amber Guyger, an off-duty police officer who was sentenced to ten years in prison for her actions. When Brandt took the stand, he told Guyger that he loved her, that he wanted what was best for her and didn’t even want her to go to jail, and that his brother would have wanted her to give her life to Christ. He then stepped down from the stand, walked over to her, and embraced her. When asked about it afterward, he said, “This is what you have to do to set yourself free. I didn’t really plan on living the rest of my life hating this woman.” Brandt knew the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous words, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” He had the unimaginable strength to respond to violence with love and forgiveness. Far be it from us to encourage the opposite.
We must resolve to be the party of Lincoln. Lincoln understood that when one injustice provokes another, when the blood drawn by the lash is paid by blood drawn with the sword, that we must yet strive to bind up the nation’s wounds, and that we must do so “with malice toward none; with charity toward all.” Let us not fall into the trap of pitting one side of our nation against the other, so that we denounce all actions on one side and excuse all actions on the other. Let us not ignore injustice when it is laid out plainly before us. Let us not refuse the burden of our fellow Americans’ misdeeds when the alternative is bloodshed. Let us instead “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Author: Josiah Reedy
The views expressed are the author's alone and are not an official statement of GWCRs