How History Reacts To Kyle Rittenhouse Incidents

A controversial shooting has divided America. Innocent people were gunned down during a contentious protest, but support for the accused perpetrator is strong, and the question of whether they'll face any justice remains to be seen. Whatever happens next, it's clear that America is as fragile as it's ever been. Those of you who follow the news know that I am, of course, referring to the 1970 Kent State Massacre. 

As a quick refresher, days of intense protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War culminated in the National Guard opening fire on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others. The full story is a long one, but an eventual government commission called the shootings "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable" while advising that guardsmen policing protests should no longer be issued live ammo. Hey, there's an idea.

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But the day after the shooting, Gallup found that 58% of Americans blamed ... the students, for getting in the way of the poor, put-upon National Guard and their blameless bullets (it was later determined that two of the victims, one of whom was in the ROTC, weren't even protestors, but had just been trying to get to class). Only 11% blamed the Guard themselves. Some survivors were disowned by their families, while others were told that more of them should have been shot. Two students at Jackson State were killed by police 11 days later. That report also said America was at its "most divisive" since the Civil War. It wasn't a swell time. 

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Speaking of uncool times for America, Kyle Rittenhouse will face trial on homicide and illegal firearm possession charges for the death of two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While there have been no formal opinion polls on the August shooting, there have been roughly eight thousand and counting opinion columns, a fundraiser for his legal defense has raised over two million dollars, and terrible screaming matches continue online to this day. 

And boy, has it been ugly. Countless conservative pundits working the hot take assembly line have defended him in tones bordering on bloodthirsty, Trump liked a tweet endorsing the shooting while repeatedly refusing to condemn it, the Breitbarts of the world are working overtime to spin the story, a thousand interchangeable YouTubers all named something like Occident Unvanquished have made tedious videos about his ostensible heroism, searching Rittenhouse's name on social media can give you permanent brain damage, and you'd better believe the conspiracy theorists are on his side. While Cracked takes the bold stance that shooting people is bad, there's no shortage of people who disagree. 

Lightburst/Wikimedia Commons
Often at protests that seem a lot more hesitant to tear gas the attendees.
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Regardless of how the case is decided, if you start reading articles describing Rittenhouse as "polarizing," it would take you weeks to finish because America discusses shootings the same way it discusses new Doritos flavors. Rittenhouse has been called everything from a vigilante to a volunteer, a terrorist to a patriot who was trying to "maintain peace" with peaceful bullets. NPR warned readers about the sheer amount of disinformation flying around, from the paranoid delusion that he was protecting a city besieged by radicals to baseless claims that he was some sort of incel militiaman because it's hard to agree on what someone was doing if you can't even agree on who he is. 

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Why make this analogy? Because a 2020 retrospective poll found that just 13% of modern Americans believe Kent State's students were responsible for their own demise. While the "Those unarmed hippies had it coming" camp is still larger than you'd hope, it's a one-sided debate now. Americans under 60--either born after Kent State or too young to follow the news at the time--are especially sympathetic to the students because, in retrospect, we know exactly what happened, and the proper conclusion seems pretty damn obvious. History tends to move in the right direction, even if it takes half a century. 

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You can do this with pretty much any major event, by the way. In 1966, 63% of Americans had an unfavorable view of Martin Luther King Jr., and most white Americans thought he wasn't helping the civil rights movement. Even at the height of his popularity, only 45% of the country said they liked the man and, when he was murdered, 31% said he'd had it coming. James Earl Ray got fan mail. As of 2011, MLK's approval rating was 94%. Only 1% had a "strongly unfavorable" opinion, which means there are people out there whose stance is somehow "I'm not personally a fan of the guy, but whatever, it's not a big deal."  

Minnesota Historical Society
That's 1 in 20 whose opinion is roughly "Nice guy, had a dream ... wish the post office didn't close on his birthday."
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It also means that the people trying to achieve the shrillest judgment of a moment while still being in the moment tend to end up on the wrong side of history, remembered only for forcing everyone else to witness a cavalcade of nonsensical outrage. The truth usually comes out in the end, and something vaguely resembling sanity prevails. It takes time -- four days after Kent State, police stood back and let construction workers beat anti-war protestors in the streets of New York City. President Nixon later thanked them, but he's not looked at too fondly these days either. 

America is still, to listen to many a historian, dealing with the fallout of Kent State. The country never really decided whether Vietnam was a glorious crusade betrayed by hippies or a pointless, meat-grinding horror show; the war just fizzled out like a TV show that ran for too many seasons, and it's been increasingly easy to embrace your own reality ever since. But parts of reality eventually become so overwhelmingly obvious that there can be no denial.  

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"Someday even the ghoulish man-spore of Tucker Carlson destined to haunt your children's world wouldn't dare defend the Rittenhouse shooting" isn't the most inspiring message, but it's something. And, if you can handle one more statistic, only 36% of Americans under 60 think the country is more divided than it was in 1970. Just remember that while the loudest and dumbest opinions are the ones you hear the most, they're also the first to die. 

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

Top image: Wk1003mike/Shutterstock

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