When I began writing this post, I was following the Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha, as was much of the nation. The jury deliberated for several days, a measure of the gravity of their task. (A sign of the times: the judge had to instruct the jury to ignore what President Biden and President Trump each said about the boy.) The crowd outside the courthouse was ready to take to the streets, depending on the verdict, and there had already been several arrests as partisans attacked each other and members of the press.
A major news network was banned from the courtroom because one of its employees allegedly followed the jurors home and attempted to photograph them. Meanwhile, the defense was claiming a mistrial, because the prosecution apparently withheld a considerable amount of high quality drone video that might have been critical to their line of argument. Mercifully, the jury announced its verdict November 19th, Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges, and the matter seemed concluded, at least for the moment.
Well before the jury delivered its verdict, partisan media had already done so, and without any need for review of the evidence, formal testimony, or court proceedings. How people viewed Mr. Rittenhouse, his victims and the surrounding events was likely determined by their preferred news source, their favorite media brand—and whatever ideological agenda they ascribed to. Wasn’t it striking to see how differently Mr. Rittenhouse and his victims were portrayed across the different news media?
It was as if our focus was drawn to two completely different individuals. Was Rittenhouse a cold-blooded, murderous white supremacist? Or was he an innocent young man railroaded by a corrupt media, soon to become a martyred patriot? To be fair, we were all watching a trial, with inherently competing visions of reality on display. We were to pick one, and then confirm our respective biases with any useful facts, discarding the inconvenient ones. We saw two images of Rittenhouse which didn’t line up at all, an uncorrectable double vision because as a society we were not all looking through the same set of lenses.
Watching the closing arguments of the defense was the most riveting court reporting I have ever seen, mainly because the defense showed detailed video clips of all the key events the night of the shootings. The scenes where Rittenhouse is attacked and then shoots back, killing two and wounding another, were played at slow motion, or stilled, or rewound and played again and again. All around him were people running, property on fire, objects being thrown, people screaming—and no police. It looked like a horror movie. It was a horror movie.
Such a dark and divided view of reality, combined with the murkiness of the facts—alternative and otherwise—the fog of culture war—created excellent conditions for the projection of partisan fear and hatred. In that nebulous cloud of anger and confused motives and desperation an image took form, no longer the person himself, no longer connected with the reality of the event, whatever that might originally have been. It was an image shaped and sustained by the fearful and worshipful attention its followers gave it.
This image, no longer Rittenhouse but something else, may still grow and acquire agency of a kind, may begin to control subsequent events. It may yet ignite riots and further bloodshed. Already in the minds of partisans on both sides this image has fostered apocalyptic visions of the near future. Will Rittenhouse’s acquittal embolden dangerous right wing vigilantes? Will the outcome of the trial lead to legislation curtailing 2nd amendment rights or the right of self-defense? Does the decision strengthen the position of white supremacy and systemic racism? Will liberal news and social media continue to subvert our nation’s laws and undermine our system of justice?
The events in Kenosha and their perception by different groups of people are indicative of an ancient cognitive malady: the inability to see people or events clearly through the fog of culture war. In the absence of facts, wisdom, understanding, compassion—or even civil dialogue—what will form in that darkness to take their place?