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Rittenhouse trial aftershock

What a seismic difference a trial has made to public and media perceptions of Kyle Rittenhouse.

When he was charged at age 17 with shooting three men, two fatally, during racial unrest in Kenosha last year, various media accounts described him as a rifle-toting white supremacist who drove across the border to shoot Black Lives Matters protesters in the racial unrest that followed the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.

But when Rittenhouse, now 18, faced his charges in court this month in a nice suit and tie, the “white supremacist” allegation died for lack of exposure. Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder barred photos and video evidence of Rittenhouse’s association with Proud Boys, a far-right, neo-fascist group associated with such political violence as the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

“This is not a political trial,” Schroeder said. “This is not going to be a political trial.”

Nice try, judge. But, of course, as much as politics should be kept away from influencing the jury inside the court, politics saturates the court of public opinion outside.

After the verdict, for example, Proud Boys openly celebrated the decision not only as a breakthrough for gun rights but also as evidence of growing opportunities for their violence-fueled messaging against the left.

Nevertheless, with his defense team’s help, a far more innocent, if naively reckless, image of Rittenhouse emerged in court: a selfless teenager and aspiring law-enforcement officer (or paramedic) who volunteered to help guard property, provide first aid and help defend the troubled city.

Which image is right in this case? That, theoretically, is why we have trials.

Nonetheless, the hero image is dangerously inappropriate, except for those whose reverence for gun rights leaves an undernourished respect for public safety, including gun safety.

Fundamentally, Rittenhouse was a youngster who went off allegedly to support law and order in a misadventure that resulted in the only two deaths connected to the Kenosha unrest.

To gun groups, Trump loyalists, Blue Lives Matter activists and others on the right, Rittenhouse was a hero, brave enough to stand his ground against violent left-wing radicals, minorities and antifa sympathizers destroying private property and taking over America’s streets.

To Americans on the left, including gun control advocates, police reformers and many civil libertarians, Rittenhouse sparked the sort of nightmare that is inevitable in a country that has too many guns. Now it was up to the trial inside the Kenosha courtroom to apply the law to this disorder, particularly the critical question of what constitutes self-defense in a country that defines self-defense in its various states in very different ways.

Trials must follow the law and this jury’s considered verdict must be respected. But the Rittenhouse acquittal must not become an open invitation to other adventurous or fanatical gunmen and women to dangerously volunteer themselves as amateur militiamen or, as Rittenhouse’s prosecutors tagged him, “chaos tourists,” looking for violent trouble either until they find it– or become its cause.

* Guest editorial excerpt by The Chicago Tribune.

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