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When Violence is Justified to Defend Civil Society

The Kyle Rittenhouse shootings aren't about property versus lives, but about protecting norms that the Left is trying to tear down.
Kenosha riots

Teenager Kyle Rittenhouse’s shooting of three men in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has sharpened the debate between left and right over whether rioting can be justly met with violence. Opinions about Rittenhouse’s attempt to interpose himself and his AR-15 between rioters and buildings in Kenosha have become entangled with beliefs about the relative value of property versus people, a juxtaposition dishonestly advanced by the left.

Writing in The Nation, R.H. Lossin captured the Left’s point of view artfully, proclaiming: “Plateglass [sic] windows don’t bleed. They don’t die and leave loved ones grieving. They don’t contribute to the collective trauma and terror experienced by their communities. They just break, and then, at some point, they are replaced by identical sheets of glass.”

Leaving aside her comical lack of curiosity about where, exactly, sheets of glass come from, Lossin expresses a widespread sentiment, and it has a certain indisputable logic: things are not, after all, people.

The response of too many on the right, unfortunately, has been to take the bait. They’re ably represented by National Review editor Rich Lowry, who argued that the person-property distinction neglects how people depend on their property for shelter and sustenance. Destroy or steal it, and you inflict physical harm.

This argument, while true, is the ante in a utilitarian shell game, wherein we must weigh the value of property against the cost of harming someone who wants to take it. Whether a store owner can resist people trying to burn down his business suddenly turns on whether he has insurance. Or his track record in the community, as when the author of the newly released book, In Defense of Looting (on sale in soon-to-be looted stores near you!) told NPR that small, locally owned businesses don’t do enough for workers, and are therefore no more deserving of protection than large chain stores. This property versus people framing pushes conservatives into a losing corner: if you’re really pro-life, how can you justify firing a shotgun at someone who just wants to smash a window and take some of your stuff?

As with so many other debates, conservatives lose the moment they adopt the left’s materialism. What’s at stake in these riots is not property, but the civic order. The most honest, ardent leftists admit as much. Looting is imperative, writes R.H. Lossin, “not because property destruction has any moral or political value in itself, but because it is coercive. It is an actual threat to order and a very real threat to capital.” Describing looting advocate Vicky Osterweil’s point of view, her fawning NPR interviewer exclaims that rioters “are engaging in a powerful tactic that questions the justice of ‘law and order,’ and the distribution of property and wealth in an unequal society.”

This calls to mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation in The Red Wheel, his history of the Russian revolution: “Revolutionary truths have a great quality: even hearing them with their own ears, the doomed don’t understand.”

While we quibble with a leftist intellectual vanguard about the relative value of plate glass windows versus human life, mob rule is being solidified as the new norm in our cities. The question is not whether this should be met with force because of the inherent damage it inflicts on property. The question is whether civil society is worth preserving with violence.

This question answers itself. When civil society disappears, individualized violence is the only means of resolving disputes. In the state of nature, red in tooth and claw, might makes right. Withdraw the police long enough, and you get Kyle Rittenhouse. The shame of it is that so many able-bodied men in Kenosha relied on a boy from Illinois to defend their streets. The danger is that masses of them will begin to feel similarly responsible for confronting hoodlums—as witnessed recently in the streets of Portland.

Rittenhouse is, of course, the left’s newest monster. The sleight of hand their spokesmen play, as they demand his prosecution, is to assert a cardinal ordering of rights in which personhood trumps property. But this can only arise out of the very civic order they make no secret about wanting to destroy. The claim that a carjacker’s life is worth more than my car depends for its enforcement on an undergirding agreement about values and mutual submission to democratic processes that enforce those values. Abolish this order, and we each choose the restraints that suit us. Am I immoral for shooting him? Who’s to say? The law? God? My carjacker has abandoned the former, and now he’s free to seek redress with the latter. No peace, no justice.

Violence is justified against marauders not because of the relative value of property versus life, but because of the essential purpose and fragile composition of civil society. For centuries, we in the West have largely forsaken arms, trusting the state to protect us and adjudicate our disputes. We’ve crafted a set of democratic institutions to keep the state, in turn, at least somewhat accountable. Most of us, at any given time, have a litany of complaints about the results of our democratic processes, but this is itself proof our civic order works fairly well. Now the left demands we sit idly by while they smash that order, pleading a primacy of human life that only finds actualization in its midst. They are “modern barbarians,” according to political philosopher Willmoore Kendall, characterized by “the wish to live off our Civilization and benefit from the commitments it imposes upon others, but not live within them.”

“Any civil authority,” Andrew Sullivan wrote recently, “that permits, condones or dismisses violence, looting and mayhem in the streets disqualifies itself from any legitimacy.” The appearance of a makeshift militia in Kenosha, and MAGA truck caravans in Portland, suggests at least a few Americans agree. What happens when thousands more decide they agree, too? Absent courage on the part of elected officials to deploy police—and give them appropriate leeway to use violence against the violent—we will return to armed citizen militias. The Second Amendment will once again be justified for a purpose many thought antiquated.

And people will die. Many more will die, most likely, than would be the case if our civil officials performed their chief duty. The question is whether enough of them have the moral fortitude to do so. Or will they stay cowering in their offices, persecuting a Kyle Rittenhouse when they can, bleating that defenders are attackers, marauders are demonstrators, and war is peace?

Tony Woodlief is a writer who lives in North Carolina.