No matter how hard you try to explain, it’s never going to make sense. In just a few hours on Saturday, Kenosha became a flashpoint in a highly divided America. And I’m not talking about the presidential election, or whether Ann Coulter gets to speak in any city.
No, the moment you heard the news about a 22-year-old man named Kyle Rittenhouse killing nine people in what prosecutors called a racially motivated rampage, you were right there with the rest of the country. Yes, of course it’s just America in 2017. And that the people of Kenosha allowed the very white man to live next door seemed perfectly reasonable. No, of course those paying attention to events did not know that the suspect in court had once changed his name to “Vanderboegh” to conceal his racism.
But the tragedy in Kenosha might not have even happened if not for a few other factors. It all started when, in the waning days of the Obama administration, Rittenhouse sent a letter threatening violence against President Obama. Never mind that the letter had nothing to do with race, and when Rittenhouse was indicted in the case, prosecutors never mentioned racial motives. This was about insurrection. “I will make the point that all races should be allowed to live free and not mired in misery,” Rittenhouse wrote in the letter. “I simply have a duty to the white race that it rise up and attempt to save itself.”
Rittenhouse’s letters were in the midst of a succession of politically inflammatory ones — most notably one to Trump about being a traitor to black families, and another about wanting the government to pay for abortions. And just at the moment when the national spotlight was shining brightly on Trump, Rittenhouse happened to snap. He was prepared to kill anyone — black, white, Hispanic — that he felt threatened.
It was a terrifying thought that has plagued many since the 2016 election. Anger with one’s political adversary, whether it be directed at Hillary Clinton or President Obama, can lead to incredibly terrible violence.
The contrast in Kenosha could not have been starker. The town has been celebrated as a beautiful and diverse place where everyone coexists peacefully. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention, held in Kenosha last year, drew delegates from 40 states and 32 countries. Not one Republican showed up.
The problem was, a lot of people in Kenosha had, or had had in the past, been terrorized by the hateful political rhetoric of Trump. And the real threat in Kenosha, and its neighborhoods, was not going to anoint the justice system a magical gateway to safety. No, Kenosha was ripe for the kind of homicidal rampage with which the town had long grappled.
But the wounds, however inflicted, were not fully healed. Rittenhouse’s rampage revealed there was much more to be done — and many people in Kenosha had done nothing. And while Rittenhouse might not have known, they did.
Lily Hay Newman is The New York Times assistant national editor. She lives in New York City.
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