The Republican Embrace of Vigilantism Is No Accident
"It’s been nearly three years since the riots and subsequent shooting in Kenosha, Wis., where a gunman — Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from nearby Antioch, Ill. — killed two protesters in what a court eventually determined was self-defense.
Among the most troubling aspects of the shooting was the almost jubilant reaction of conservative media to the news that someone had taken the law into his own hands and meted out lethal force. Tucker Carlson praised Rittenhouse as someone who decided “to maintain order when no one else would.” Ann Coulter said she wanted Rittenhouse “as my president.” Marjorie Taylor Greene, then a candidate, called him an “innocent child,” and Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky praised Rittenhouse for his “incredible restraint.”
Rittenhouse would go on, after his acquittal, to become a minor conservative celebrity. He met with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, got a standing ovation at a Turning Point USA conference and earned the praise of the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who said, “Kyle Rittenhouse did what we should want citizens to do in such a situation: step forward to defend the community against mob violence.”
At the time — noting, as well, the celebration of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, two would-be vigilantes, at the 2020 Republican National Convention — I wrote that this was an ominous development for what it revealed about the conservative mood. There seemed to be a bloodlust, defined by an almost reflexive embrace of anyone who used lethal violence against a perceived antagonist.
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That bloodlust appears to be getting worse.
We saw it last month, when the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, announced that he would try to pardon Daniel Perry, 35, an Army sergeant who was convicted of murder in the shooting of Garrett Foster, 28, at a Black Lives Matter protest in July 2020.
Perry said he had been driving through downtown Austin when he encountered a group of demonstrators in the street. Foster, who was in legal possession of a semiautomatic rifle, was in the group. When the demonstrators approached Perry’s vehicle, he opened fire, killing Foster. Perry claimed self-defense, telling police that Foster pointed his rifle at him. But prosecutors said that Perry could have driven away from the situation, and witnesses testified that Foster never raised his rifle at Perry.
After the verdict, the judge in the trial unsealed court records that show Perry’s extreme anger and fantasies of violence toward protesters. “I might have to kill a few people on my way to work, they are rioting outside my apartment complex,” Perry wrote to a friend. In a separate message, Perry said that he “might go to Dallas to shoot looters.”
None of this mattered to the conservative media personalities who denounced the guilty verdict as unjust. It was a “legal atrocity,” said Carlson, who wondered if Texas “no longer recognizes the right of self-defense.” It was an “unfair conviction,” said Rittenhouse, who urged Abbott to “step in and free Daniel Perry.”
The governor obliged, announcing on Twitter that he was “working as swiftly as Texas law allows regarding the pardon of Sgt. Perry.”
Although it is possible the jury made a mistake when it handed down a guilty verdict, neither Carlson nor Rittenhouse nor Abbott tried to argue the case on the merits. Instead, they made a simple assumption: that any violence against a left-wing protester is justified on its face. Perry had lived out the right-wing fantasy of lethal violence in defense of “order.” By their lights, he had done nothing wrong.
Prominent conservatives have taken the same view of Daniel Penny, the 24-year-old assailant in the killing of Jordan Neely in a New York City subway car this month. What we know is that Neely, who was homeless, was erratic and acting hostile toward other passengers. Witnesses say he had not attacked anyone. At some point, Penny, a former Marine, placed Neely in the chokehold that killed him. Two other passengers restrained Neely while he struggled on the ground. Penny is now charged with second-degree manslaughter.
We don’t know much, yet, about Penny’s mind-set or motivation during his confrontation on the subway. But this has not stopped conservatives from valorizing him in the same way they valorized Rittenhouse and Perry. “The Marine who stepped in to protect others is a hero,” said Greene, now a congresswoman. The decision to charge Penny, said the Fox News host Greg Gutfeld, was “pro-criminal” and “anti-hero.”
In a testament to conservative enthusiasm for Penny, an online fund-raiser has raised more than $2 million for his legal defense. And DeSantis, now angling for the Republican presidential nomination, stepped in with a message of support. “We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law abiding citizens,” he said on Twitter. “We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine … America’s got his back.”
It’s the same language, the same tropes, the same ideas. In listening to conservative fans of Rittenhouse, Perry and Penny, you would never know that there were actual people on the other side of these confrontations. You would never know that those people were, in life, entitled to the protection of the law and that they are, in death, entitled to a full account of the last moments of their lives, with legal responsibility for the men who killed them, if that’s what a jury decides.
What you would know is that some Americans are “heroes” and “law-abiding citizens,” and others are not. You would know that those Americans get the benefit of the doubt. And you would learn that to be seen as a problem by one of these law-abiding citizens is to be in jeopardy and even, potentially, to forfeit your claim to life. We see this in the worst of the discourse around Neely, who is framed not as a citizen with rights worth respecting, but as a dangerous nuisance who deserved his fate.
One last point. Ron DeSantis called Penny a good Samaritan. We also saw that language used in defense of Rittenhouse during his trial. In American English, the term “good Samaritan” has come to mean any person who helps someone else in distress, but the actual parable of the good Samaritan is a little more complicated. In the story, a traveler is assaulted by thieves who rob him, beat him and leave him for dead. Three people pass him. The first, a priest, ignores him. The second, a Levite, also ignores him. But the third, a Samaritan, binds his wounds and helps him recover, asking for nothing in return.
This parable, found in the Gospel of Luke, begins with a question. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with the story and asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” To which the questioner says, “The one who showed him mercy.”
The power of the parable comes from the context. The Samaritans were a despised out-group. Someone who overheard Jesus’ exchange with the “expert in the law” who began the conversation might assume that the Samaritan would ignore the injured traveler, but he would be wrong. And it is not just that the Samaritan helped, but that he showed the decency the other two, presumably more respectable bystanders, lacked. The parable of the good Samaritan is a story of selflessness, yes. But it is also a story of the folly of prejudice and the essential equality of all people.
Given the full meaning of the story, do we think a modern-day good Samaritan would use lethal force or act as a vigilante in defense of order? Probably not. But the idea that he would — and that this is what it means to act either ethically or responsibly — is evidence enough of a sickness that festers in too many American hearts.