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Kyle Rittenhouse Is Not Who You Think He Is


The events in Wisconsin late last month, I think, truly made our collective heart ache. Following a cycle of increasing polarization for decades on end, and the violent paroxysms of the past few months, the last week of August into September was a soul-rending chain of unmitigated pain. The horrific shooting of Jacob Blake set off a renewed wave of protests, in which the ultimate price has been paid by supporters of each side.

This felt, and still feels, like the most dangerous moment for our country that I have ever experienced, at least in my half a lifetime. And what creates this danger is our constant habit of viewing the actions of our opponents in the worst possible light in order to achieve our full moral separation; our maintenance of the view of ourselves as in the right, and them in the wrong. We’re constantly nudged one way or the other in our interpretation of the intentions and the motivations of those we disagree with, and when we add up all those little nudges, it puts us on the other side of a vast gulf.  

These are usually subtle distortions of the truth, and they don’t in fact serve us the way we have intended. They just push us toward less understanding of our foes, while failing to sway the opinions of others toward our viewpoint, and most unmistakably, provoking the fierce defensiveness of those opponents.

Let’s take the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who was captured on video shooting three people, killing two of them, during the protests against the Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

To the left, he’s a monster. He’s a mass shooter who came to Kenosha looking for trouble and found it, and when confronted for it took the cowardly way out. To the right, he’s a patriot, who came to help free the city of Kenosha from the violence and destruction of rioters, to support the police in their mission to keep the streets safe, to clean up after vandals, who even sought to give aid to anyone harmed that night, on either side.

Of course, neither of those images is even remotely complete, since the story of how Rittenhouse got into this situation is, as usual, complex and heartbreaking, and at points even a bit pitifully funny. And all of this is recorded on video. If you take the time to watch not just the shootings themselves, but the preludes that lead up to them, even in the days preceding, you see a lonely, bullied kid who had sought acceptance and community with a group that claimed to be the allies of the police, a profession which, according to nearly every news report about his personal life, he “idolized.”

He fully believed in the message that the breakdown of law and order threatened the very fabric of our society, and he saw this moment, for which he’d been preparing for years, as his chance to not only stand up for what was right, but to be seen doing it as well. As an interesting presage to that last bit, a TikTok page belonging to him apparently contained videos of him assembling guns, with the profile bio line, “Bruh, I’m just tryna be famous.”

This performance, as I think it can be accurately termed, started well before last week, with Rittenhouse getting into a fight on July 1st which resulting in him punching a girl multiple times, caught on video. I don’t know about any other history of violence he might have had, but I can imagine a scenario in which he saw this as one of his first real moments to make his presence felt by standing up to someone who had picked a fight with his friend, never mind that that someone was smaller than him.

Fast-forward to the day of the shootings, and you can see his tense excitement as he declares his role in the protection of property and safety to a reporter from the Daily Caller, Richard McGinnis, calling it his “job,” and promising to rush into harm’s way for anyone under threat, including the reporter himself. “We’re running medical, and we’re going in and getting people.” Rittenhouse also claims to have helped stop two local buildings from being set ablaze, including a church, surmising that he and his group were able to “de-escalate” the situation more effectively than the police would have. And in fact, earlier in the day he made an unambiguously positive contribution, helping to scrub graffiti off a local school, which might lend credence to the idea that, even if he were inflating his sense of self-importance, he at least wished to use it for good.

But as we continue following McGinnis’ video, the role playing gets even more absurd. Rittenhouse is joined by an older man who suggests they go see if there are any injuries they can attend to as “Medical” personnel. That man turned out to be Ryan Balch, a follower of the “boogaloo boi” movement that has been preparing for a race war. They had met earlier in the day, and Balch apparently took him under his wing for a while. As we follow this walk, perhaps the most desperate and cringe-worth declaration of the night is uttered, and it comes not from Rittenhouse, but from the man who’s taken charge of his wellbeing. McGinnis is asking the 17-year-old about his “EMT” credentials, which Rittenhouse is clearly inflating—he’s actually just a lifeguard with some emergency training, a far cry from a real emergency medical technician—but then declines to inquire about Balch. So after a beat, Balch offers up, “And I’m forward army infantry, and I got a whole bunch of [unintelligible] training.” In this exchange we can see an entire universe of insecurities represented, with both the underaged kid with a gun and the man accompanying him—who had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan—desperate to be recognized for their importance and experience.

The scene takes its first dark turn as we see Rittenhouse announcing “Medical!” in another awkward attempt to be taken seriously as a courageous defender of public safety. As he walks up to a group of young black men, we immediately get a clearer picture of what he’s been up to earlier in the day—one of them tells McGinnis that Rittenhouse had shooed him away from a car at gunpoint. By this time, having been confronted with this, Rittenhouse has already moved on, not denying the accusation, but continuing to shout offers of medical help.

McGinnis was still with Rittenhouse when the night went fully south, beginning with his confrontation with his first victim, Joseph Rosenbaum. And here’s where we encounter one of the main problems standing in the way of a clear-eyed understanding of what happened and why. To get such an understanding requires progressives be willing to take a fair look at Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense, even as we maintain a healthy skepticism of the motivations of many of those touting it. And to do that requires that we actually look at the people he shot, especially the first.

As I type this, I can feel the rising agitation of my fellow progressives. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel rightly points out, we cannot judge an incident like this based on the past actions of the victims. And there’s a long history of motivated reasoning distorting the backgrounds of victims of violence to justify that violence, particularly in the cases of the black victims that Rosenbaum was there to speak up for.

But refusing to look at the negative aspects of a victim is not the same as impartially weighing the circumstances of the violence. When trying to piece together what happened that night and evaluate Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, evidence of what Rosenbaum did in his final moments is key. We don’t know yet—and may never know—what he did, but we do know that earlier in the night he belligerently confronted armed militia members, daring them to shoot him. This doesn’t mean he acted in the same way toward Rittenhouse, but he might have. Clearly this is an aspect that those who paint BLM protesters as rioters would never ignore, and those protesters don’t help their cause by denying its clear relevance, especially when there’s really no good footage showing in detail the moment of the shooting.

We should certainly take into account the fact that Rosenbaum was chasing Rittenhouse across a parking lot, and that in the moment right before the fatal shooting, another person in that lot clearly fired a gun into the air. And the only close-up eyewitness account of the shooting has the victim grabbing for the gun of the shooter, to take it from him. In the scene that followed, it’s also pertinent that Rittenhouse was being chased by a group that was trying to disarm him, and received a drop-kick followed by a skateboard to the head, as one person tried to grab his gun and another approached him with a pistol.

With a situation like this, I think it’s important look inward. With all of these factors piling up, who do we think we’d be in this situation? We can choose to assume the best of ourselves as we think the worst of Rittenhouse, but I think that’s a disingenuous approach.

Sure, what you’re thinking now—if you’re a progressive like me—is a fair point: we wouldn’t be in the middle of a hostile crowd with an AR-style long gun. But what this points to is that the conversation should seriously focus around why he was there in the first place. And our reactions to this catastrophe point to the very reason anyone would be there in the first place. We have come to embrace only the aspects of the story that support our narrative, and it amps up the rage on both sides to the point where we’re driven blind to any nuance.

This bullied boy, who had come to Kenosha convinced that he was doing right by history and those around him, found himself in an utterly terrifying situation, and he did exactly what we would expect him to do.

That reality makes it no less true that at the same time, black people are exhausted from the terror they must live with every day. It’s a terror based on the fact that in the same country in which a white kid with a fully loaded AR can walk up to a police vehicle and be thanked for being there, and who can walk towards those same police right after having shot 3 people with his hands raised to surrender and be told to go home, that a black kid playing with a toy gun would be shot before the officers’ car had even stopped.   

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement hit a peak on June 3rd, shortly after the death of George Floyd, as the nation finally seemed to approach the long-awaited reckoning with its tragic treatment of our black citizens. White progressives have been eager to show themselves as allies to black people during this time. Now, however, that progress has been undone by the behavior of a few in the protest crowd, setting cars and buildings on fire and taunting the militants in their midst. And from what I’ve seen, many of these people have been white.

This is no way to be an ally, especially when many of the businesses are black-owned. Not only is this violence harming the very communities that the perpetrators claim to be advocating for, but it directly enables the cynical message from the movement’s detractors, that violence is a tactic to achieve the larger aim of destroying our country out of hatred. 

Each of us, from progressives to pro-Trump conservatives, must come to terms with the fact that the other side’s belief in our side’s compliance and complacence with the rise of fascism, is sincere—and that this is a problem. Indeed, that very polarization is how fascism wins, by convincing everyone involved that each provocation from their opponents must be met with equal force, lest they be emboldened. But we can break that cycle, by choosing to judge with more humanity the actions of those who oppose us. To see them as the flawed humans that they—and we—are.

This is not to draw a false equivalence. Each of our tribes has made no secret they abhor that. And I have no doubt about which side of that debate I’m on. But believing in one’s own righteousness does not require demonization of those who you see as committing unjust acts.

Some progressives argue that oppressors should be denounced and exposed as violent monsters. They argue that this was the strategy of Dr. King’s non-violent resistance, to win over the moderate middle. But I think this misses the point of King’s philosophy, and that of his intellectual forebears. They stood firm in the face of violence and made it very visible to the public, so society was able to look upon itself. Their words were important too, but those words didn’t tear others down—they called them up to join the Beloved Community, to invite even their oppressors to join in that community when it is realized. 

This philosophy hinges on a universal potential for redemption, which I see as a core component of humanity. To call someone an evil monster based on their reaction to a provocation is to not only deny their humanity, but to further assert that because of the difference in our DNA that we are incapable of the sins of our enemies. But human behavior is a product of experience and circumstances—more so, I believe, than genetics—and leaning on the concept of “evil” to explain it denies our own potential for acts of extreme good or bad.

This is a most classic of cognitive distortions, as we’re so fiercely protective of our self-images. But believing ourselves immune from humankind’s most acute fallibility is the quickest path to our own fall.

What does this mean for our outreach to those who we see as fallen? For myself, to truly live the principles of the philosophy of King and his ilk, to truly behave as though I believe in the possibility of redemption for all, means that there is no line for me, no ideological distance I will refuse to try to bridge. My involvement with Braver Angels has reinforced for me that regardless of that distance, I will always believe in the value of reaching out to someone, of trying to understand them. I would have that conversation with an open mind to their perspective, with no expectation of changing their mind about their actions, regardless of how deep their sins.

And what if through this act we did truly connect, sensing one another’s humanity and developing a deep sense of empathy for one another? Extending empathy to someone who has done wrong does not equal condoning their behavior, or necessarily even forgiving it. But it does open the door for repentance, and given that the harm has already happened, would there be a better result than that?

After all, what is the function of punishment? Is it purely to deliver pain in equal measure to the crime? Or is it to achieve the reckoning that the guilty needs to face their own guilt and actually feel remorse? Do we just say an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, or do we act in a way that shows we’ve internalized that lesson? And if that is the goal that we can agree to among humanity, then how can we pass up a chance to open our ears to those who have wronged us? To hear about their pain, to hear about what drove them to the moral descent they’ve suffered?

Which is all to say, if this message makes any sense to you, then in order to judge Kyle Rittenhouse, or Michael Reinoehl, or any of the other people involved in the escalating violence that threatens to carry us to the brink of a real civil war, we must be willing to truly know them. To hear their stories, to try to feel their pain, their fear.

This is not to say that asking an oppressed people to turn the other cheek, insisting that it’s the only way forward, is right. But while strong condemnation of violence and hatred has obvious value, so does a sincere offer of redemption. And the combination of the two can be so powerful. These approaches are truly complementary. An unwillingness to countenance voices of hate can make outreach to those voices more powerful. But the offer of redemption, I believe, makes that condemnation more promising. 

There’s a different path available to us, away from this escalating cycle of violence and contempt. It’s much easier if we walk this path together, but since we can only control our own approach, the responsibility begins with us.

For my fellow progressives, I would argue that we need to support civil rights leaders with a real plan to mobilize the BLM movement in a way that it would mind its own limits, where those who made decisions that distracted from the message of the movement were reined in, rendering the power of public support undeniable. The protesters would be able to occupy the streets until true change is enacted. It would take hard work and vigilance. It would take thorough documentation of every time someone within the opposition hurts us, a video of every time that someone is shot with a paintball gun or pepper sprayed without provocation.

And this principle extends across the divide. Law-and-order conservatives may very well declare that violence and destruction is unacceptable, highlighting any time a store is looted or a car is set alight, but must seriously question whether these actions invalidate the underlying movement for racial justice.

About our own side when we are the perpetrators, we should say, this is not who we are, and we condemn this behavior. And about our opponents we should say, this is not who you are either, and we know you can do better. But we refuse to retaliate.

Let us all make this promise, to see the best in one another, instead of assuming the worst, lest we help to fulfill our own dark prophesies.

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47 thoughts on “Kyle Rittenhouse Is Not Who You Think He Is”

  1. Randy, in this excellent essay, you have come to grips with one of the hardest issues–the recognition that even those whose views we consider to be motivated by hate, may view us the same way. We would all do well to keep the golden rule in mind, particularly with those who disagree with us. A recognition of our common humanity, and thus a willingness to listen to the other side with an open mind, is required in order to go deeper into what motivates them to feel the way they do is preferable to the reductionist labeling of those who see things from the opposite point view. I recommend the book “Don’t Label Me” by Irshad Manji. We are all complex human beings. But it is very, very difficult for me to view people espousing hate (Trump and his ilk) with malice toward none and charity for all.

    1. Thanks, Andy. It’s clear that you’re no fan of the president, but I have hope that you’ll continue your effort to see those who are as human beings driven not just by fear, but by sincerely held values, and concerns that must be addressed, just as we fight to have our own fears and concerns for vulnerable people addressed.

      1. This is by far the best piece I’ve read on this matter
        by any side. (none
        of which I personally claim.)

        And I agree with you.

        You cannot fight fire with
        Fire, and expect the world not to burn as an end result.

  2. Erica Etelson

    Key point: “Indeed, that very polarization is how fascism wins, by convincing everyone involved that each provocation from their opponents must be met with equal force, lest they be emboldened.” Political violence is clearly ratcheting up. After US Marshalls killed Michael Reinoehl (who had confessed to killing a Patriot Prayer counter-protestor, allegedly in self-defense), Trump said that the killing of Reinoehl was “retribution” and implied that he ordered the US Marshalls to kill rather than arrest him. (See interview at This virtuala admission of an extradjudicial excecution is the most extraodinarily terrifying thing I’ve ever heard a sitting POTUS say.

    We as citizens have different views on what constitutes justice. Some may believe that causing the wrongdoer to suffer rightly avenges the wrongdoing. For others, what’s important is making the victim whole and giving the wrongdoer a chance to atone. Despite these difference, I hope the vast majority of us still believe that alleged crimes should not be punished (by state actors or citizen vigilantes) without due process. Severe polarization appears to be weakening our commitment to this bedrock principle. We’ll miss it when it’s gone and, by then, it will be too late to get it back. As the author says, this is how fascism puts down roots.

    1. Audrey Biloon

      Our real enemy is social and news media which divides us for their own greed. Although Hannah Arndt and Rosa Luxemburg didn’t foresee social media, each clearly saw the mendacity of those who seek to divide us.

      Arndt wrote that isolating us into our own corners was their primary method. It’s even easier now that social media, through their use algorithms, can isolate us by corralling us further and further into echo chambers which feed our fears.

      Luxemburg, who had high hopes for Communism, distanced herself from it when she saw their censorship methods as just one more way to instill isolation and fear. When the Communists thought her views would hurt their cause, they had her assassinated and then to cover their tracks the “movement” (be careful of mendacity renamed as movements) made a martyr out of
      her, using her words regarding her high hopes for communism…the irony is poignant.

      If you study and understand the slippery social media slope we’re
      on now, with social media’s ability to
      censor free speech through Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, you’ll see that Luxemburg would have been appalled and would have tried to stop it’s voicing only one side because she would have seen (as we must) that if censorship of one side I is the game It’s not the end game….totalitarianism is in which all are silenced except to bend the knee, not for having a Democratic voice but rather in fealty.

      Santayana reminded us that history will be repeated for those who don’t take heed. The problem is that those who don’t take heed are usually ignorant because they’re too far generationally from those who have lived that history. All we can do is try to reach them through the teaching of history (with all of its warts, not by tearing it down and re writing it) and, given it’s harsh lessons, to ask that they learn better ways of living.

      1. Audrey, thanks for your comments, and for engaging in this discussion. I think you point out some troubling trends and factors, but I have to take issue with what I see as another demonization that is unproductive, that of the media, whether social or news. You’ve ascribed greed as their motivation, but I see this very differently. I tend to believe that the skews and division we see within the news media are a product of their sincere belief in the truth of what they report, with a failure to account for their own narrow human perspective. They fully believe they’re contributing to the enlightenment of society, and I do not see genuine mendacity there.

        Social media is also an issue, laid quite bare by the recent Netflix doc The Social Dilemma, but I think in it we see that those who are also quite human and sincere in their beliefs that they were giving the world something beneficial were not sufficiently humble in acknowledging the potential downsides. They were also working for a company that had a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders, something we take very seriously in this country, and that responsibility includes pursuing projects that yield a strong return. They did that. But now that we understand better the 2nd-order effects of these decisions, we’re in a position to advocate for regulators to step in and mitigate the harm we’re experiencing. But that advocacy should include both sides, so we respect the potential danger that you’ve pointed out of a one-sided approach that may verge on totalitarian/authoritarian echoes of the past.

        1. Erica Etelson

          It sound like you’re, to some degree, justifying corporate media malfeasance on the grounds that they owe a duty of profit maximization to their fiduciaries. It’s for this reason that I believe it’s imperative that corporations adhere to a triple bottom line — people, planet and profit — rather than simply profit. Gov agencies can protect the public to some degree but, so long as the primary function of news media (or any industry) is profit maximization, I don’t think regulators will ever be able to catch up with the damage they wreak.

          1. I think that’s a fair point, and our pressure on regulators should be accompanied by financial pressure on companies to be better corporate citizens, perhaps in the form of buying from and investing in B Corps and other like-minding businesses. But it takes a lot to get people to look past price and their own financial wellbeing, so I think this is more challenging.

  3. I didn’t like the part where you , “…that a black kid playing with a toy gun would be shot before the officers’ car had even stopped.”

    That’s not true. Don’t perpetuate this.

    1. I deliberated over this, because there are conflicting accounts, but ultimately it seemed to me that this is indeed what happened. But I grant you that in a lot of these situations the information about what exactly happened is frustratingly incomplete, which leads both sides to fill in the blanks with whatever fits their narrative.

    2. 2 recent examples:
      Tamir Rice shot by cop in Cleveland, OH for playing with a toy gun mistaken for real one.
      Andy Lopez shot by cop in Santa Rosa, CA for playing with toy gun mistaken for real one.

  4. This is a good and empathetic approach to an important moral position. But, as a white progressive trying to remain attentive to Black Lives Matter and to not move on from a position of proactive support, I’m having difficulty seeing this essay as more than just a settlement in favor of status quo. And as a Braver Angels member since the springtime, attending debates and reading copy, my sum impression of the Braver Angels project itself is that it isn’t interested in correcting injustices of the status quo while getting people together to deescalate. How would you reconcile this with a well-articulated statement that casts violence as having been indispensable to Black Americans working to get the freedom and rights repeatedly denied to them? As done so here:

    1. Braver Angels is the sum of the people involved, and so the organization can’t be said to have specific political goals regardless of how worthy the goal of correcting the injustice in our country may be. But we are an organization which collectively believes that, while there is common ground to be found when we look for it, moderating our beliefs is not the answer for passionate advocates. It’s communicating in ways where we can hear one another, so that the best ideas win out. And justice is ultimately a better idea than injustice. When injustice is made plain to see, as in the struggles of the civil rights movement, it will be brought down.

      That article seems to make a bit of sense, until you recognize that the author’s argument is that we needed violence to precipitate the Civil War, which is something we’re currently trying to avoid. Will that leave our black countrymen and women out in the cold, without the remedies for injustice they seek? It doesn’t have to, especially when we recognize the power of nonviolence to make change in the world, just as Dr. King learned from the example of Ghandi freeing the people of India from the imperial yoke of the British without firing a single shot, and as Mandela learned in turn from those forebears.

      Was there an alternative route out of slavery that didn’t involve the loss of life of the Civil War? I can certainly imagine one, composed of civil disobedience and economic pressure, which perhaps would not have ended in the path of Reconstruction and subsequent Jim Crow that we ultimately followed. Perhaps I’m naive in this vision, but reading King continues to reinforce for me that nonviolence is ultimately the most morally right path, and the path that destroys our enemies by turning them into our friends, rather than trying to vanquish them, the latter which is (amazingly enough) the less realistic path.

  5. Kenneth Widell

    “With malice towards none, and charity towards all.”

    That’s it.

    To nobily save the last, best hope of Mankind, you just do it. No excuses.

    This is what it means to be an American. It’s not supposed to be easy.

    The whole world is watching. We need to stop embarrassing ourselves.

    We’re not children anymore. It’s been almost 244 years,

    It’s time to grow up.

  6. Linda Ahern Selto

    I shared this on Facebook, hoping to start a conversation. A right wing extremist that thinks Braver Angels is a left wing cult, called out the article because it mentioned the video of Rittenhouse fighting with a girl.. Why did you use this as an example when it has not been proved to be him?

    1. I appreciate your sharing it. I included that because I believe it’s relevant to Kyle’s character (I assume your friend has no issue with me including the video of Rosenbaum earlier in the night), and I haven’t seen any evidence casting doubt on it. If I do I’ll be happy to include a correction.

  7. Why do you think the people here have more empathy for Rittenhouse than they do for Trayvon Martin?

    1. I don’t know if you can compare the two situations directly, nor the groups that have empathy for them. Our empathy is often tied in with our ideological/tribal self-image, so we’ll generally express support for someone who our side makes a priority, especially if we see them being attacked by our ideological opposites.

      1. Ok, but that seems like an important part of this. One thing that jumped out at me in your post was this:

        “ Which is all to say, if this message makes any sense to you, then in order to judge Kyle Rittenhouse, or Michael Reinoehl, or any of the other people involved in the escalating violence that threatens to carry us to the brink of a real civil war, we must be willing to truly know them. To hear their stories, to try to feel their pain, their fear.”

        Michael Reinoehl is dead. He was killed by law enforcement.

        You compare him to Rittenhouse as “escalating violence”, but only one was deprived of his due process rights.

        Why didn’t you mention that?

        1. These are fair questions. I actually wrote the piece before Reinoehl’s death, and I’d seen the video of him shooting the right-winger in response to that guy pepper spraying him, and also evidence that it was indeed him who did it. There’s plenty more to write about him, but suffice to say that while his situation and Rittenhouse’s were very different, and can’t really be compared in terms of due process, I can understand why you felt I was drawing equivalence. To me, they’re just both examples on the escalation we’re seeing, which is a tragic spiral and needs to be called out.

          1. I appreciate you taking the time to reply. The way right wing media depicts Rittenhouse is really frightening to me. It is one thing to ask for empathy for a scared kid, but there is a real trend of kids being groomed to do violence by their communities.

          2. I don’t really see it that way, nor nearly at the scale you seem to imagine. There are plenty of people who feel the left wing is grooming our youth—especially on college campuses—to be anti-free-speech communists, but I think that’s also hyperbolic, and leads each side to see the worst in the other. But you’ve already read my article, so you know how I feel!

  8. I appreciate the attempt to bring nuance to the motivations of one of the major players in this tragedy. A report published Oct. 3 in the Washington Post fills in the picture even more by considering the backgrounds of some of the other players as well:

    This report reveals that Rosenbaum, who initially chased Rittenhouse and was fatally shot, had recently been suicidal and hospitalized. Taken together, what emerges for me is a portrait of four young men, struggling to overcome chaotic and abusive backgrounds, broken relationships, homelessness, lack of opportunity, and often mental illness, who tragically crossed paths as they were seeking meaning and belonging at a protest event. Perhaps the real blame here should be on a society that fails to address basic human needs, often while promoting unrealistic expectations of masculinity and hero worship. It’s a far more complex picture than a political divide.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Beth. I wish I had a sub to WaPo, but I definitely appreciate the insights you’ve posted, and I couldn’t agree more that we’re failing to understand one another’s personal struggles, the details of which get lost in our rush to assign blame in a way that fits our own narrative.

    2. Erica Etelson

      Beth, I think what you’re saying is deeply empathetic and insightful. I agree that, when people do terrible things, there’s a whole context they’re operating in, all kinds of experiences they’ve had, influences on them, information or disiformation they’ve consumed, unmet needs, etc. It’s incredibly sad when people are so damaged that they act out their pain on others, or so lonely and alienated that they take drastic steps to belong or find meaning in their empty lives.

      Our President is, in my mind, an example of someone who strikes me as deeply unhappy and insecure and is acting out his narcissistsic wounds in very harmful ways. I’m sad for what he’s suffered at the same time that I’m utterly enraged at the havoc he’s wrought.

  9. Is there even a question that Tamir was shot within seconds of the police arriving? Whether the car had actually stopped or not seems like splitting hairs.

  10. I just joined Braver Angels and this is the first piece I’ve read as a new member. I appreciate, Randy, your insight, care and research into the different people and incidences. Two things strike me in the responses I’ve read to your piece.

    We, as humans want to be right. We get emmeshed in the detail, and want to point out where the other is incorrect in their assessment. I see in your piece, not an attempt to get everything exactly right, but to suggest an approach to our fellow human from a basis of love, understanding and empathy.

    So I would ask those who criticize your piece to try to see the bigger message of your piece. Let’s give each other just a little bit of a break. Each one of us; you, me, the police, the 17year old kid, the protesters, the looters, the progressives, and conservatives, all of us will at times get it wrong, a little bit. And sometimes, as in this case, a lot. We can’t help it. We are subjective and we each have a mental/emotional construct based on our own histories and experiences that color everything we see, read or hear.

    We are being asked to see the other; to step out of our frame of reference; to set aside our beloved issue or policy and see the person who sits across from us no matter who they are, what they’ve done or how much they hate. And here is why. Not because a religious leader told us to do it. Not because it’s the right thing to do. Not because it makes us better people. It’s because, in the end, it is the only thing that works. I believe that in each of our lives we can find a time when we proved this to ourselves. We just have to remember.

  11. Amen, Ilgac, and well said! We all believe things that aren’t true — the problem is, we don’t know which things those are.

  12. Hi Randy,

    Thank you for your work in writing this piece. I just wrapped up an extended discussion with some of my friends and acquaintances after I shared it on Facebook, and I’d like to take this opportunity to stretch my comfort with having challenging conversations on challenging topics by following up with you here 🙂

    Our conversation about your essay covered a few bases. I would generalize them into three questions: “Is this essay closet (or even overt) white supremacy?” “Do we agree with Lioz’s premise that, were we in Rittenhouse’s situation, we would have done what Rittenhouse did?” and “How effective is empathy as a tool to produce the change we hope for in Rittenhouse and people like him?”

    At last week’s debate (Resolved: vote for Trump) I heard your speech in the negative. I brought that experience to the conversation I was having, and it reinforced my sense that you are working really hard in a good-faith effort to understand the other side and where they are coming from (not to mention the fact that you display a high degree of articulateness as well as clarity and nuance of thinking–also on display in this piece). But I can also see how that effort can be construed as going too far, and I’m torn between the two. So I wanted to try to bring some of the thoughts from that other conversation to you here, to give you an opportunity to respond, and to give me (us) an opportunity to see your responses 🙂

    The first response I received when I shared your piece was a fairly strong negative opinion about how there is already too much empathy for white people and not enough for black people–including, pointedly, for black victims of institutional violence (who are often unjustly vilified, apparently to try to justify their killing–see for example My initial response to this was empathetic agreement, but later, after re-reading your piece, I didn’t agree that expressing empathy for white people necessarily devalues our empathy for black people. Where I’m at now with this is that it seems to me that the expression of empathy for the privileged is not wrong in and of itself, but rather it is the knee-jerk habitual way in which we do that, not because it’s right to be empathetic, but because we have been inculcated to be more empathetic to the privileged than the less-privileged. So it seems that the main risk of expressing empathy for white folks (especially white supremacists or white perpetrators of monstrous acts) is that we unintentionally give additional license to those who unthinkingly perpetuate the status quo in their doling out of empathy.

    A great example we’re all familiar with: someone replying “all lives matter” when someone says “black lives matter.” That is a knee-jerk habitual reaction that affords more empathy to the privileged caste and in fact feels threatened by empathy for the less privileged caste. That is the actual problem, rather than the sentiment “all lives matter,” because, of course, they do. That’s the whole point of saying “black lives matter.”

    In what ways can we try to represent the nuance of distinction here between “good” and “bad” expressions of empathy?

    Empathy also played a big role in another one of the points of our discussion. A friend of mine (who is a professor of philosophy and so whose arguments are much more detailed than any I could conceive of) pointed out that, if our goal is to encourage people who have done monstrous things to repent of them so that they may be redeemed, then this is likely to backfire given the fact that they will almost certainly receive just as much, if not more, empathy from those who agree with the justness of their actions. And if Rittenhouse or someone like him is able to receive equal empathy from his own “side” without the additional need for repentance, then what motivation does he have to repent? My friend’s argument, then, as accurately as I can portray it, was that empathy for empathy’s sake is not necessarily helpful, so that we should try instead to view empathy as a tool that we can use to achieve good ends, and withhold when we sense it would prevent us from achieving our ends.

    I was not sure I agreed with that, either. I had my own response to it, but I’d be curious to hear yours.

    The final point of discussion we had was in response to what seems to be an important part of your argument, that seems aimed at getting us into a place where we can be empathetic toward Rittenhouse. My attempt to summarize it would be “asserting that we would do the same things Rittenhouse did were we in his situation is to absolve him, and therefore all of us, of free will.”

    A compelling part of that argument that comes to mind now is the notion of standing and defending ourselves in fraught situations. Certainly we can understand how someone would feel a need to defend himself from people acting with aggression against him. But, while we can afford that understanding to Rittenhouse, we also must afford it to those with whom he came into conflict. And it is there that we see the potential problem.

    My friend said it like this: “What I mean is, if you are responsible for the creation of a situation in which you are forced to defend yourself, then your reasonable self-defense claims are nullified. For example, if I punch someone in the face, and they move to strike me back, and then I shoot them dead, and say, “I was acting in self-defense,” we would find my statement non-sensical.”

    …which gets us back beyond the actual act of shooting, to what seems a more significant decision that Rittenhouse–a 17-year-old child with insufficient weapons training–made, which was to illegally acquire a military-style long gun and bring it into an already escalated situation, unnecessarily escalating it further.

    I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this. Let me know if anything isn’t clear. I typed this up between a few different meetings and appointments today.

    1. Michael, thanks so much for your sincere engagement with this article, and for pressing me to address these points. My relationship with the article is actually still evolving, and more recently I’ve come to criticize myself for not extending Rosenbaum the same empathy I did to Rittenhouse, based on the jarring view of the former’s life story that The Washington Post recently gave us in their extensive video analysis.

      But I also think it’s vital not to lose sight of the main reason all of those people were there in the first place, which is the plight of black Americans and the change that is still sorely needed in how they’re treated in so many ways. Hopefully you see evidence of my concern for that fact in sentences like the following from my piece:
      “That reality makes it no less true that at the same time, black people are exhausted from the terror they must live with every day.”
      “…there’s a long history of motivated reasoning distorting the backgrounds of victims of violence to justify that violence, particularly in the cases of the black victims that Rosenbaum was there to speak up for.”

      And I’m glad you don’t agree with the notion that “expressing empathy for white people necessarily devalues our empathy for black people.” Considering your professor friend’s thoughts about “empathy as a tool that we can use to achieve good ends,” perhaps we might also see it from the opposite direction, as a tool to avoid bad ends, which in this case would be those who disagree with us digging in their heels and refusing to discuss the case with us in response to our own unyielding approach. I also think that empathy allows us to access a more accurate understanding of the situation, which ultimately benefits any approach we take to it, and is in the purest sense the right understanding for us to try to achieve.

      And yes, I maintain my belief that he should not have been in that situation to begin with (“Sure, what you’re thinking now—if you’re a progressive like me—is a fair point: we wouldn’t be in the middle of a hostile crowd with an AR-style long gun.”), but that idea hinges on a much bigger discussion about our posture towards one another in the current climate, and the question of how people should respond when they see images of protesters burning down parts of their city.

      Also, saying he had insufficient weapons training I don’t really think is accurate. He seems to have had decent training (not perfect) that resulted in him shooting only people he saw as posing a direct threat to his safety (people who were reaching for his gun or holding a gun themselves), while not firing upon the last person who tried to confront him but who backed off with his hands up. I can imagine there will be plenty of people who disagree with me here, but this is what I see when I watch the video.

      And yes, he’s a minor, but I’ve also found myself trying to figure out how the conversation would be different if he’d been born 5 months earlier, and were 18 at the time of the shooting. The situation would have been exactly the same, but with no discussion of him having done anything unequivocally illegal, with the focus purely on whether he had the right to act the way he did in purported self defense.

      Hopefully this answers your questions, but I would be happy to continue the discussion!

  13. Just the other day, a friend of mine said: “I have no problem those kids are locked up. Their parents came over as illegals and should have known that they would be separated, just like any other criminals.”
    Can you help me get past my shock and revulsion? I was no longer sure of who my friend’s moral compass. Was he really ok with cruelty to children, ok with denying others the right to seek amnesty, ok with the lie that these “murderers and rapists take American jobs?”
    After an eerie silence, we changed subjects to this year’s bad harvest.
    Now what?

    1. I might be able to help a bit, but if you’re really motivated to have this conversation with your friend, it sounds like it will take some hard work on your part. But it’s worth it. The work would be focused around identifying the positives that he sees coming from using this policy as a deterrent, and also understanding the limits he places around these actions.

      He may tell you that he thinks that he’s helping to keep others from suffering economically, like native-born children whose parents might not have their livelihoods threatened by labor competition. And no matter how much you or I might disagree with that premise, the real challenge comes with not questioning the sincerity of his belief, and trying to understand how he came to it.

      Best of luck with the conversation, and I hope you break through to a genuine connection of understanding.

  14. Dorsey Cartwright


    Your ability and willingness to see and acknowledge the nuances of human behavior and events is refreshing. Your efforts at self-reflection for yourself and your “tribe” with the integrity of both accountability and compassion is inspiring and affirming.
    So glad I’ve found you, Dorsey

  15. As others have noted in the comments, this is overt white supremacy. This piece essentially argues that Rittenhouse’s victims should forgive him, and if we don’t, then we are causing further extremism and violence. Why Braver Angels would publish such racist right wing ideology under the banner of a supposed “progressive” is beyond me. Rittenhouse was caught recently plotting with the domestic terrorist Proud Boys group at a local bar. After the events of January 6.

    Kyle Rittenhouse remains exactly who we knew he was: a domestic violence extremist who traveled across state lines to violently disrupt Black Lives Matter. This essay was an attempt to gaslight us and present Mr Rittenhouse and his supporters as the victims. The goal was to delegitimize Black Lives Matter and lionize those who would attack and kill them. It is baffling to me that it remains on this site.

    1. Evan, I’m sorry to hear you feel that way. There are plenty of other blues who have reacted very positively to my piece, and I’ve been very open to engaging with those who don’t. I don’t believe I said anything about how Kyle’s victims should feel about him, but I do think it’s fair for us outside observers to weigh the circumstances evenly before making a judgment about his culpability. And yes, I was also disturbed to see what Kyle has done lately, though I haven’t looked at it in detail. But I tend to believe that if one group demonizes someone and another defends him, that person will embrace the latter group. This is often what happens with the cycle of radicalization and extremism.

      I fully support the BLM movement, and continue to consider myself a dedicated progressive. I’m disappointed that you think my motives are nefarious, and I suppose it’s your right to feel that way, but I can assure you that I’m fully committed to the goal of ensuring that our society believes and acts consistently with the notion that black lives matter. (I did happen to help run an event just last night for a racial justice organization.) In my mind, the most effective way to do that is to keep open the lines of communication with those who don’t agree with the movement, and the only way to do that is to ensure our disagreements are accurate, rather than based on demonization and assumptions of bad faith.

      1. Thank you for your reply Randy. You are certainly welcome to self-identify however you want, but there is nothing progressive about sympathizing more with Mr Rittenhouse than his victims, as you have previously confirmed in the comments. Nor is there anything progressive about promoting the Daily Caller as a legitimate news source, when it is in fact a notorious white supremacist propaganda outlet.

        I believe, and appreciate, that you are committed to a society in which Black Lives Matter. I only wish you presented that model of allyship with a sense of fidelity to the actual movement. Claiming the movement doesn’t have serious leaders, or BLM leaders don’t have a serious plan for progress, simply ignores what is evident to any good faith ally who is invested in the movement. It’s almost as if you don’t see the leadership at all, which is worrisome.

        I also take great exception to the idea that there is anything progressive whatsoever about arguing that people of color and other victims of systemic violence should turn the other cheek, as you passionately argue. You are wildly out of line to suggest that people who don’t empathize with Kyle Rittenhouse as you do are somehow less brave or less righteous for their unwillingness to forgive.

        Why are you telling BLM what to do? What makes you think it is progressive to tell this liberation movement to pair down its goals? Like it or not, this is overt white supremacy. And I’m not demonizing you by pointing it out. You said before that your relationship to this piece is evolving. I sure as hell hope so.

        1. Evan, I’m confused about some of your comments, since they don’t seem to represent what I’ve said anywhere. You say that I sympathize more with Kyle than his victims, and that I’m asking POC and victims of systemic violence to turn the other cheek. But I don’t see these as consistent with anything I’ve written.

          And pairing down its goals is far from anything I would hope for the BLM movement. I would like those in the movement to apply the social pressure needed to get people to stop undermining those goals by setting cars and dumpsters on fire and burning buildings as we saw in the videos of that night. I know it’s a pretty difficult thing to control, and BLM leaders certainly don’t intend for the peaceful action they’ve led to break down in this way, but as they say, impact is at least as important as intent, and the impact that these actions have is to convince worried people that their communities are under threat, and makes it more likely that they will dismiss the cause.

          That’s the hard work of movement building, and it’s what Dr. King did so well, especially when he chose to cancel protests when the group he was working with would not commit to non-violence. None of this is cut and dry, black and white, and there will be instances of violence beyond the control of movement leaders. But that’s the whole point of what I wrote; there is so much nuance woven throughout these situations, and when we roundly condemn someone based on a situation we don’t fully understand, that’s wrong. I can criticize leaders for being imperfect while still supporting them and their cause. Just as those who criticize our country are not un-American, but rather do so out of love for it, seeking to make it more perfect.

          You may believe my words reflect white supremacy, and I may indeed still have much to learn, given that like the rest of us I was raised in a society that saw whiteness as the default, the normal, and yes, the supreme. But I care deeply about racial equity, and I will stand up for the approach that I believe can bring us towards it in the most effective way possible, and I won’t yield to arguments that appeal to labels without the weight of well-laid-out reasoning. I have admitted to areas where I have some growth to do before on this site, and I would invite you to go ahead and use my words against me to show me that I have things wrong. If I can see your logic, I’ll certainly do my best to find those ways I can grow. That I promise you.

  16. Is your wild misreporting of the incident where Rittenhouse defended his sister from someone who was beating her while she was defenseless intentional or was that info just not anything you knew at the time of publishing? And your assumption that Balch spoke of his credentials for any reason other than pride is much more telling of your own feelings than any insecure he may have.

    1. Melissa, thanks for reading the article. It looks like I might have gotten wrong that he was defending his sister, and not his friend, in the fight, based on the available info at the time. Is there anything else I misreported about the incident?

      And yes, that was certainly my interpretation of Balch’s words. I’m sure you’re right that it reveals something about me, though I’m not totally sure what that is.

  17. After reading article and all commentaries can I get back to what this is about? For starters yes, I’m not far right but somewheres in the middle. KR should plea guilty of a much lesser violation. I’m fully convinced as the author suggests he was bullied, wanted to belong and grasping a lot of straws. When he actually found out what he’d gotten himself into….it was too late. If he only knew before-after, don’t think he would of made such a showing that fateful evening.

    Still, whatever possessed a 17 year old with that mindset. He could of very well been the next school shootings headline, that profile- absolutely. If only he could of spent 4 years prior in the Army let’s say? He would of had the mental discipline and matureness to of approached that matrix with a completely different attitude and actually face the reality and consequences.

    Yes, charge him with weapons ownership, misuse and the idiot that bought that kid a gun to begin with OMG. Start with him at the beginning of it all, not where or how it ended.

    Regards, Rich

    And variations of all the stories told, I swear I don’t know what’s what? Okay, point being I hope KR is taught a valuable lesson of reality. Community service would be right up his alley and yes, recommendation of going in the service for a time anyways.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rich. Yeah, lots of moving parts here, and this story seems to continue to be covered in a pretty black-and-white way by many commentators. I tend to agree with those on the left that it was a terrible decision for him to bring the gun, and it makes me see open carry laws in a very negative light, and I agree that the people who gave him access to that gun should possibly face a reckoning. But I also feel like there isn’t a strong case against him, and if he’s acquitted it would be irresponsible of those on the left to raise hell.

  18. Thank you for a thought provoking essay. I believe that the title BLM is exclusive, fuels opposition, and supports decisiveness of just two races, black and white. If the movement was titled ALM, All Lives Matter it could bring attention to any oppression with a goal of inclusive acceptance without using segregation.

    1. Hi King, I appreciate the compliment and engagement. I understand that there are many people who take issue with Black Lives Matter as an organization, and that’s a lengthier discussion. To me, the statement that black lives matter is less up for critique, since the people using it are trying to point out a specific injustice they see. One of the ways I’ve thought about this is in the context of other orgs trying to raise awareness for their cause. I can’t imagine someone going to a breast cancer awareness organization and complaining that they should focus on all types of cancer.

      And nowhere does BLM say that *only* black lives matter, which is how many critics seem to hear it. If it were called All Lives Matter, that wouldn’t communicate anything about the mission of the organization. I think it’s true that we can point out an issue that’s confronting only one segment of the population without calling it segregation.

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