NEW YORK – One might well wonder what a pudgy teenager was doing roaming the streets of a Midwestern town with a semi-automatic assault rifle, claiming to be a defender of citizens and property. But that is not what the now 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was put on trial for in November. He killed two men and wounded another, then claimed that he did it in self-defense.
State law sets a low bar for self-defense in Wisconsin, where the shootings occurred. Carrying a gun is lawful, and so is shooting someone to prevent “what the person reasonably believes to be an unlawful interference with his or her person by such other person.” Since one man pointed a gun at Rittenhouse and the others were chasing him, the jury believed that his fear of being “interfered” with was reasonable.
This was not an absurd verdict. One could easily imagine that a black man shooting three white people (all Rittenhouse’s targets were white) might not have gotten off so easily. But that is speculation, and no reason to doubt the jury’s good faith.
Nonetheless, some liberal media instantly published angry articles arguing that the verdict was a clear case of white supremacy. Because Rittenhouse had ostensibly come to town to protect people during a Black Lives Matter demonstration, one writer argued in The Guardian the “verdict is proof that it is reasonable to believe that the fear of Black people can absolve a white person of any crime.”
Such instant conclusions are almost always unwise. But the reaction on the right of the political spectrum was more disturbing. Former US President Donald Trump hosted Rittenhouse at his palatial home in Florida, had photographs taken with him, and called him a “really good, young guy” who had been the victim of “prosecutorial misconduct.” Liberals, in this version of the story, had been out to get him. Rittenhouse himself claimed that he had been “extremely defamed.” This is about more than defending gun-slinging and vigilantism. It is about turning political opponents into dangerous enemies and larding support for violence with pumped-up stories of martyrdom.
The American left has its own language of grievance and trauma. Black victims of police shootings become the focus of nationwide demonstrations against white supremacy. When George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis in May 2020, he became a martyr of “systemic racism.” And “social justice” can be an excuse for fanaticism – often inviting equally extreme responses on the right.
Still, there is good reason to deplore the way police routinely treat African Americans, and some of Trump’s most fervent supporters make their white racist views perfectly clear. When some of them got arrested for storming the Capitol in 2021, they became martyrs of the right. After visiting these “patriots” in prison, far-right US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted, “I have never seen human suffering like I witnessed last night.” And Trump called Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by a police officer after breaking into the Capitol, “a truly incredible person.”
The cases of Floyd, Rittenhouse, and the mobs that ransacked the Capitol are not equivalent. It is easier to sympathize with outrage over racism than it is with the so-called patriotism of right-wing vigilantes. And elected politicians on the left are much less likely to promote violence. But the language of martyrdom is dangerous, even when the sentiments are justified.
Martyrdom is a religious concept. People die for their beliefs. Religions are founded on the blood of martyrs. When political parties indulge in these sentiments, they are rarely democratic. Horst Wessel, the Nazi brownshirt who was killed in a street brawl with Communist activists, became a martyr to National Socialism. But then Nazism, with its leader worship, its martyrs, its arcane rituals, and torchlight parades, was more like a religion than a political creed. This has not traditionally been the case with democratic parties, whether left or right.
So long as political differences concern interests and ideas that can be reasonably debated, political opponents can be respected, and compromises can be reached. Nothing about democratic politics is “sacred”; lives should not be sacrificed for one party or another. But reasonable debate ends when politics becomes religious. When blood sacrifice is idealized, there can be no room for compromise.
In the worldview of far-right Trump supporters, anyone with opposing views – liberals, anti-racism activists, advocates for immigrants – are not just political adversaries. They are an existential threat: you are either for us or against us, and those who are against us want to “take over our nation,” or “replace our race.” That can only end in a fight to the death. Blood will be avenged.
This puts US Democrats in a difficult position. What is a political party to do when the other main party has been taken over by self-appointed holy warriors? To treat them as a loyal opposition worthy of engagement in a spirit of compromise and respect becomes almost impossible. Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and Joe Biden have sometimes been criticized by their own supporters for not fighting dirty and giving Republican fanatics a dose of their own foul medicine.
That would be a mistake. All legal means should be used to stop extremists from wrecking democratic institutions, but those institutions won’t survive if all parties turn politics into a matter of life and death. In a quasi-religious war, the far right will almost certainly win; they have more fanatics and, in the US, many more guns.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.
Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.
Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.