Kenosha, Portland, and a Lesson from Mr. Lincoln … and Mr. Putin

As all are aware, on August 25, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, apparently drawn to Kenosha, WI, from his residence in Illinois by the protests attending the August 23rd shooting of Jacob Blake, killed two protestors with the AR-15 rifle he had brought with him.  His attorneys assert that he was defending himself.  This past Saturday night, following a day in which 600 pro-Trump vehicles had amassed in a Portland, OR suburb before proceeding into the city, Aaron Danielson, a member of Patriot Prayer, a far-right Portland group, was shot dead in Portland; the Wall Street Journal reports that police have an interest in Michael Reinoehl, allegedly a member of Antifa.  It’s not clear from the account whether Mr. Reinoehl resides in the Portland area.  While Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has condemned violence on all sides in all places, President Trump has at least tacitly supported Mr. Rittenhouse.

Events are spinning out of control.  I consider these protest-related shootings conceptually different from the precipitating incidents involving George Floyd and Mr. Blake.  Although those atrocities are recent examples of the centuries-old pattern of systemic police brutality against African Americans, I would submit that they were still in a sense random.  Neither Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin nor Kenosha Officer Rusten Sheskey could have desired the results they brought about; aside from any feelings of human remorse they may or may not feel, they undoubtedly realize that no matter what the outcome of official proceedings regarding their conduct, their lives will never be the same.  (Indeed, I suspect that Mr. Chauvin, given the inhuman nature of his conduct toward Mr. Floyd, will need to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life).

The Kenosha and Portland protest shootings seem to me to present a different type of danger – that of a society beginning to unravel.  They conjure the impression of opposing armies intentionally positioning themselves for battle.  Heretofore random impulses seem poised toward coordinated activity.  In Gettysburg, Bruce Catton shows that the great battle didn’t just happen to occur there; both armies intentionally headed to meet there because of its perceived tactical advantages. Kenosha police have indicated that the majority of those arrested during the last week of protests come from outside Kenosha.  The Journal reported Monday that after a couple of nights of protests, former Kenosha Alderman Kevin Mathewson posted a “call to arms” on his “Kenosha Guard” Facebook page, and that Mr. Mathewson stated that “thousands responded that they would be attending.”  We now not only have authorities – be they scared, misguided, or malign – taking action against peaceful protestors; we not only have citizens – whether misguided or malign – destroying property; we now have our citizens traveling to where they can shoot at each otherover political beliefs.  These are not “militia”; they are army and cop wannabes exploiting our current unrest to either live out their fantasies or unleash their hateful tendencies. 

I think all but President Trump’s most cultish supporters would acknowledge that he sees division among our citizens to be to his political advantage.  He has exacerbated Americans’ tensions and granted our unstable elements the permission “to act out” to the extent that we now have levels of unrest unseen since the 1960s. How anyone can offer even faint support for a 17 year-old-boy who traveled across state lines and killed two people with a semi-automatic weapon more than strains reason; it constitutes insanity.  I would submit that Mr. Trump is going to Kenosha today – in defiance of the requests of both WI Gov. Tony Evers and Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian – because he wants a riot – the riot he wanted and didn’t get (because nobody showed up) at his embarrassing June campaign rally in Tulsa, OK. 

While it would be appropriate to conclude this note with a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s observation that “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” what came to mind as well is striking similar advice from a most unexpected source:  Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The principle that emerges most prominently from the early chapters of Mr. Putin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy – a work more psychological profile than biography — was at least to me unexpected:  President Putin’s obsession, in some ways incongruous given his dictatorial ways, that the Russian government needs to maintain a genuine general affinity with and among Russian citizens if Russia is to survive as a state.  Ms. Hill and Mr. Gaddy state that Mr. Putin considers the disintegration of Tsarist Russia and the USSR to have resulted from those regimes’ failures to keep faith with Russian citizens (which he interestingly considers to include all who live within Russia’s borders of any ethnicity, resisting efforts by some Russian officials to elevate ethnic Russians).  Mr. Putin’s premise that the need for unity among citizens is the key to a nation’s strength, while presumably the insight underlining his efforts to sow discord among our people, nonetheless offers leadership precepts directly at odds with Mr. Trump’s instincts and actions.

Hill and Gaddy write:  “[J]ust before the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections … Putin proclaimed:  ‘… Let those who proclaim the slogans of social and ethnic intolerance, and are smuggling in all kinds of populist and provocative ideas that actually lead to national betrayal and ultimately to the breakup of our country, know that we are a multinational society but we are a single Russian nation, a united and indivisible Russia.’”

While I generally strongly believe that we can only have one President at a time, right now, in practical terms, we don’t have any President.  Whether by design or accident, President Trump’s course furthers Russian strength while disintegrating our own.  Mr. Biden must summon what it takes to point out to those of us open to reason the heightening danger of our discord.  He needs to continue to make clear – if necessary with a bullhorn, as George W. Bush did after 9/11 – that while we as a people need to rise up to address the sins visited upon our oppressed, we must at the same time condemn with equal passion violence and destruction … and that, as Messrs. Lincoln and Putin, as diametrically different as they are, each observed a century and a half apart: a nation’s survival depends on its capacity to unite.

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