Rittenhouse and his victims are America’s ‘lost boys’

Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

bySamuel GoldmanNovember 11, 2021November 11, 2021Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare via Email

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse for the killing of two men and wounding of a third during riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, entered its final phases Thursday. Although the defense continues to make its case, a consensus is emerging among observers that Rittenhouse is unlikely to be convicted of the most serious charges. He may have been too young to possess the Smith & Wesson MP 15 rifle a friend bought for him and stored in Kenosha (the statute isn’t clear about the rules for long guns). But dramatic testimony, including Rittenhouse’s own appearance on the stand on Wednesday, suggests his actions that night meet the state’s legal standard for self-defense.

What you think about that probably depends your politics. Even before the trial began, the case became a litmus test for attitudes toward racial justice protests, the violence that sometimes attends them, and the condition of America in general. As my colleague Jim Antle has noted, the responses scrambled expectations. While rowdier elements of the right praised Rittenhouse as an outright hero, other conservatives sounded like old-fashioned liberals, criticizing prosecutors’ overreach and insisting on strict attention to courtroom procedure. Leading progressives, meanwhile, tooking a law-and-order turn, dismissing technicalities and calling for Rittenhouse to be locked up as soon and for as long as possible.  

My own intuitions lie in the muddled middle — and point me to a deeper conclusion about Rittenhouse, his victims, and the millions of other ‘lost boys’ just like them all around America.

Even if he isn’t guilty of murder and his open carrying of a rifle was legal, Rittenhouse’s decision to enter a “war zone” was extremely stupid. It does not matter whether he believed he was helping to maintain order. Despite the American mythology of indomitable voluntarism, sometimes it’s better just to stay home. 

But the same is true of Rittenhouse’s alleged victims. Initially characterized as harmless bystanders, it turned out that they included a homeless convicted child abuser who was treated for a suicide attempt on very day he died; a demonstrator with his own record of violent conduct; and a gun enthusiast and self-appointed (though also certified) paramedic loosely affiliated with something called the People’s Revolution movement.

To put it bluntly, these are the profiles of people who find trouble without looking very hard. 

Previous misdeeds aren’t legally relevant, of course, but their biographies suggest Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, and Gaige Grosskreuz had more in common with Rittenhouse and each other than you might expect from the contingent circumstances of their encounter. To different degrees, these men share histories of family instability, domestic abuse, and run-ins with the law. From this perspective, the real story here may not be the ideological clash that fascinates commentators. Instead, it’s a tragic encounter among lost “boys” (Rosenbaum, the oldest and most disturbed, was 36, Huber and Grosskreuz were in their 20s, and Rittenhouse was just 17) for whom political causes were likely a pretext for seeking excitement, camaraderie, and danger. 

A closer look at Rittenhouse’s life supports that interpretation. In June, a profile in The New Yorker recounts Kyle’s difficult childhood, his search for structure in a police cadet program, and an unsuccessful attempt to join the Marines. He worked as a lifeguard until his position was canceled due to the pandemic. Last month, prosecutors tried to use footage of Rittenhouse at a bar with Proud Boys as evidence of a connection to the right-wing group. But the footage dated from four months after the shooting, when Rittenhouse had already become a favorite punching bag of the online left, and the judge ruled it out of consideration. 

These observations don’t absolve Rittenhouse of responsibility. But they make it clear that he was no Dylann Roof or Anders Breivik, fired up by white supremacist tracts. Like many others on the streets of Kenosha on August 25, 2020, Rittenhouse seems to have combined vague political justifications with a powerful sense that something important was happening and he belonged in the middle of it. The nominal issue — police brutality — was probably been less important than the chance to take risks in defense of some principle, however vague or attenuated. That desire doesn’t always lead to deadly violence, fortunately. But it’s widespread among  males, who yearn to be strong men even if they want nothing to do with Proud Boys. 

In one sense, it’s a relief to find personal explanations for incidents of violence. The role of psychological factors and sheer chance help relieve fears of organized civil conflict. With the possible exception of Grosskreutz, who had links to left-wing activist groups, none of the men involved were disciplined political cadres. What they seem to be instead is lonely, excited, and justifiably scared of each other. 

The absence of a coherent ideological motive shouldn’t be comforting, though. Contrary to the fantasies of secretive organizations exercising direct control over right- of left-wing foot soldiers, a major threat to order are right in front of us: marginal men to whom flames and bullets are more appealing than their chances for a quiet life.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) drew much derision and some praise for suggesting there is something very wrong with a society that offers few prospects to the lonely, damaged men our educational, economic, and political institutions seem to generate in large numbers. The tragedy in Kenosha suggests he’s right.


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