“Shoot me, n***er, shoot me!” screamed the patient who had been released that day, apparently itching for conflict with a bunch of men with guns. Joseph Rosenbaum, 36-year-old father of a two-year old daughter, had tried to kill himself. Released from the hospital, unsuccessful, he stumbled—so the story goes—unknowingly into a riot on the burned-out streets of downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Racial justice demonstrators, as the media have taken to calling them, were out in force in support of Jacob Blake, who had been shot while reaching for a knife as police tried to arrest him for sexual assault, and who happened to be black. Rosenbaum, we are told, didn’t care about any of that. He just wanted to get in on the action.
In a Kenosha courtroom this past week, a delicate-featured ADA with a front-heavy fauxhawk and a middle-schooler’s suit entreated the jury in a criminal trial: “Let me tell you all the awful things Joseph Rosenbaum did.” This segue, delivered with heavy sarcasm in a shrill and grating voice, was not a sincere offer to enumerate the horrific sins of Mr. Rosenbaum’s short life. The forced and repeated sodomy of five boys aged 9 to 11, for which “JoJo” Rosenbaum spent time in an Arizona prison, was notably omitted—in fact, the prosecution had ensured that this rather significant testament to the dead man’s character would not be mentioned at all in the course of the Kenosha trial.
Instead, the prosecutor ran through a list of the minor crimes Rosenbaum is known to have committed on that particular night, keeping up the same bizarre tone throughout. He concluded: “Oh, and there’s this empty wooden flatbed trailer that they pulled out in the middle of the road, and they tipped it over to stop some BearCats, and they lit it on fire,” adding a particularly emphatic intonation to that last word, as if to suggest that one would be insane to take offense at arson.
A single line in the prosecutor’s closing-argument PowerPoint describes Rosenbaum as: “Tiny guy. ‘Babbling idiot.’” The prosecutor waves away his documented belligerence that night as merely a “Napoleon complex,” insisting that the five-foot, four-inch pedophile with a death wish was a perfectly harmless rioter.
He also had bipolar disorder, a volatile mental illness that was clearly not well managed. Copious footage from the night in question shows him antagonizing just about everyone he can, and the testimony of multiple witnesses suggests he threatened many (including Rittenhouse) with death. It is a kind of ostentatious bravado clearly learned in prison, which Rosenbaum seems never to have expected he might have to back up—he seems, in fact, not even to have understood what backing it up might mean. He spent his final moments furiously chasing an armed 17-year-old through the streets, ultimately lunging for his Smith & Wesson M&P 15, at which point the teenager felt he had no choice but to pull the trigger.
Against my better judgment, the more I’ve watched and read about this case the sadder I’ve felt for Joseph Rosenbaum. I cannot even begin to imagine the anguish of such a twisted soul. The workings of the demonic are as evident in him as the recognizably human is absent. What made the man of August 25th we may never know, but there is little doubt that one treated well by the world would not have wound up in Rosenbaum’s condition. He was immensely sick, a man whose evil did unspeakable damage to other souls but immeasurable damage to his own—practically subhuman, right up to his death. The natural response to him is disgust, but I think it should be mixed with pity. This was a kind of pedophilic Gollum, a creature so broken and pathetic as to be almost below reproach.
A step above this is Thomas Binger, the prosecutor whose words are reproduced above. A middle-aged man with more flair than charisma, the most notable event in his life thus far was losing an election as a Democrat in neighboring Racine County. Throughout the Rittenhouse trial he drew mockery online for his outlandish hairdo and colorful outfits, finally catching on and donning a simple gray suit for his two-hour closing argument.
Despite holding a degree from the tenth-ranked law school in the country, Binger seems blissfully unaware of the law. In one of the trial’s viral moments, for instance, he was scolded by Judge Bruce Schroeder for questioning Rittenhouse’s post-arrest silence, which has long been understood by the courts as a basic constitutional right. His entire approach to his own profession seems to have been learned watching Legally Blonde.
Like Rosenbaum, he is obnoxiously unmanly, and not just because he is unable to carry out his work. The entirety of the prosecution’s argument is, in effect, reducible to Binger’s awed, almost mystical sense of guns—with which he clearly has no real familiarity. In one of the trial’s tortured interactions, Binger quizzes the defendant on the differences between hollow-point and full-metal-jacket ammunition—differences about which neither man knew anything at all. At another point, Binger expresses shock that Rittenhouse could have thought Gaige Grosskreutz—who pointed a gun at Rittenhouse with an arm bearing the tattoo “First, Do No Harm”—was actually going to shoot it because he never stepped back, squared his legs, and put both hands on the gun in a “ready-fire position.” At another point, he expresses further shock that Rittenhouse could have deemed Grosskreutz a threat because the latter only had a little pistol, whereas the former had a big, scary AR-15. In yet another bizarre episode, Binger frets that “wearing an AR-15 does not send a warm, inviting message.” The prosecutor’s detached ignorance culminated dramatically in his pointing Rittenhouse’s gun at people in the courtroom, bolt forward and finger on the trigger—a violation of the most basic principles of firearm safety, especially egregious given recent headline news.
Throughout his arguments, Binger alternated violently between coldly amoral and grossly sanctimonious. In one instance he gave a brief rundown of the people to whom Rittenhouse had provided first aid that night; drawled out a long, sarcastic “yayyy” at a womanly register; then suddenly screamed “I don’t give you any credit” in a burst of rage and an altogether different voice. At another uncomfortable moment, he substituted “yuh” for “you’re” in what might have been a swing-and-miss at hood-speak.
Nor is it just in practice that Binger seems confused at the concept of masculinity. He is horrified that, after shooting the man who pulled a gun on him, Kyle Rittenhouse “walks away like he’s some sort of hero in a western.” Together with his use of a still from the movie Road House in the course of his closing argument, such comments suggest that Binger’s entire understanding of traditional manliness, and of how a man handles himself in the face of violence, is limited to what he’s consumed secondhand on a screen.
On the level of fact, it did not seem to matter to Binger that Rittenhouse was actually walking to the police line, where some moron cop pepper-sprayed him, apparently unaware that approaching a police line with both hands in the air is a commonly accepted gesture of surrender. The mere fact of walking makes him some kind of fake hero, like those macho jerks in the movies men sometimes like to watch.
And what, to Binger, is a real hero? That would be the men whom Rittenhouse shot. This includes, of course, the aforementioned JoJo Rosenbaum, who was just trying to take a gun away from some mean white supremacist kid—who, as Tucker Carlson said, “died the way he lived: trying to touch an unwilling minor.”
It includes, also, Anthony Huber, whose criminal record contains a litany of charges linked to domestic abuse. It includes Gaige Grosskreutz, that tattooed medic who admitted to pointing a gun at the teenage defendant before the latter pulled the trigger. It also includes an unidentified man who attempted to kick Rittenhouse in the face in the few seconds between those other two attacks.
Each of these men was “trying to be a hero and stop an active shooter and protect others.” Mixing hyperbole with delusion, Binger assured the jury: “Every day we read about heroes that [sic] stop active shooters. That’s what was going on here.” And yet “that doesn’t make them a threat to the defendant’s life.” Why not is never explained to us; we are just left to assume that the standard rules about meeting deadly force with deadly force do not apply when the instigators are racial justice demonstrators.
Signs displayed by protestors outside the courthouse this past week likewise cast them as martyrs of Kenosha’s “beautiful rising.” They are heroes among men, and the man who shot them is just (in another oddly cruel and bitter phrase that cannot have helped Mr. Binger’s case) “a little 17-year-old.”
Which brings us to Kyle Rittenhouse himself. Any way you look at it, Rittenhouse’s story is a tragedy. It is worth stating off the bat that he did nothing wrong: Each of the shootings was a clear case of self-defense, and though it took four days the jury found as much. Judge Schroeder’s instructions to the jury on this point are worth quoting at length.
The law of self defense allows the defendant to threaten or intentionally use force against another only if he believed that there was an actual or imminent unlawful interference with his own person, and he believed that the amount of force which he used or threatened to use was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference, and his beliefs were reasonable. The defendant may intentionally use force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he reasonably believed that the force used was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to his own person.
A belief may be reasonable even if it is mistaken. In determining whether the defendant’s beliefs were reasonable, the standard is what a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence would have believed in the defendant’s position under the circumstances that existed at the time of the alleged offenses.
Given these instructions, there was never any ambiguity about Rittenhouse’s actions, and the mere fact that charges were brought by the state to begin with is a miscarriage of justice.
I hesitate to continue at all, given the vitriol invited from corners of the right by anything but praise for Rittenhouse.
The standard line from sympathetic but critical liberals like Atlantic columnist David French is that he never should have been there. This is true, actually. Kyle Rittenhouse should not have been there, because other people should have. The city’s police force should have been capable of maintaining peace on the streets. If that failed, the elected governor should have sent in the National Guard. As the last resort, private citizens should be capable of stepping up. When the maintenance of order demands the use of force, public spaces should be protected by men with guns, who know how to use them and how not to.
Kyle Rittenhouse is not that—though his actions and apparent instincts suggest he is the kind of man who, given better formative circumstances, would be. As it is, he’s a naive kid who fell in with some LARPers, who really were (in perhaps the one characterization Thomas Binger managed to get right) mostly just “wannabe soldiers acting tough.” In the Week, Samuel Goldman wrote about them at length, “marginal men to whom flames and bullets are more appealing than their chances for a quiet life … the lonely, damaged men our educational, economic, and political institutions seem to generate in large numbers.” Nobody who watches the videos of that night or has followed the progression of testimony in court can conclude in good faith that, along with these other would-be protectors, Kyle—who, for instance, made the initial, basic blunder of getting himself left alone in a hostile environment—knew what he was doing.
This points to another big-picture concern. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same system that left Kyle Rittenhouse feeling like he had to defend his streets with a rifle also failed to prepare him to do so very competently. When society collapses because the men are all too soft to maintain order, neither those men nor the sons they’ve raised can really be expected to put it back together again.
Some are inclined to lionize Rittenhouse because he felt a noble instinct to defend his community. He tried, and he did it when others would not. This impulse is certainly laudable. But the hard truth of the matter is: If the only thing standing between you and anarchy is a lone Kyle Rittenhouse, your best option is to reach for your rosary. He got lucky once; we will not get lucky every time.
The great tragedy of Kenosha is that, in a matter of days, civilization collapsed so fully that the only people willing to stand against chaos were teenagers and twenty-somethings who barely knew how to shoot, much less how to fight, and not at all how to establish or maintain control. That is the reason people died, and the reason Kyle Rittenhouse will spend the rest of his life with the weight of having killed them: the wholesale dereliction of basic duty by an ineffectual government, and the inability of the whole society to form men as capable as they are willing to step into the breach. Once the regime finally crawled out of its bunker, with whole sections of the city turned to ash, the best it could manage was to send some effeminate mediocrity to prosecute the youngest of the LARPers for killing a pedophile and another violent criminal in ham-fisted self-defense.
Binger’s failure is deserved, and it is just. It saves Kyle Rittenhouse from a life of wrongful imprisonment. But it does not save him from what brought him here in the first place: absolute failure all the way down. The decline of Kenosha into an anarchic wasteland. The degradation of citizens to a status almost as debased as their government. Even with the smoke cleared, even with Rittenhouse acquitted, that remains. No order. No victory. No heroes. Barely men.