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There’s something about superheroes that inspires us. 

When we read about saving the world and bringing justice to our communities, it gives us a sense of hope. We watch Wonder Woman save children from certain death, and we are inspired to build a better future. We see Batman descend upon thieves and murderers and imagine what would happen if we had the ultimate power to protect — if we could take every threat to our safety and end them swiftly and without remorse.

Perhaps that’s how Kyle Rittenhouse, only 17 at the time, felt as he walked through the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, holding his gun aloft. Maybe he felt like Batman. Maybe he felt like the action heroes in Netflix movies, the ones they release without any marketing or buzz. Maybe he felt like a policeman, striding amongst the protesters and their shouts calling for an end to Black murders.

Nonetheless, I guarantee you he didn’t feel like he should’ve — a young armed teenager about to end two lives.

On Nov. 19, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty for the deaths of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum and not guilty for injuring Gaige Grosskreutz. Rittenhouse shot all three men during protests in Kenosha which were in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by a white officer in August 2020. 

The decision to acquit Rittenhouse has been a controversial one. Liberals tie the decision to white privilege in America and see the outcome as an indication — once again — of institutional racism in the criminal justice system. On the other end of the political spectrum, many conservatives say that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, which echoed the main argument Rittenhouse's defense team put forth.

Yet in the wake of the case, another narrative has popped up, circulating in right-wing news outlets and plastered over Facebook: Rittenhouse was not just an armed kid caught in a whirlwind of violence — he was a hero. This narrative stems from the fact that both of the men Rittenhouse killed were felons

The narrative paints Rittenhouse as a vigilante hero, taking action into his own hands to rid the world of villains. According to this narrative, because the people Rittenhouse shot had criminal records, he was doing society a service by dispatching them. Rittenhouse brought vengeance and justice to the men he killed. Though this wasn’t the reason for acquitting Rittenhouse, it’s become a rallying cry for far-right Americans who wish to justify Rittenhouse’s actions. 

This narrative, like many of the greatest tales of heroes and villains, is fiction. Those adamant that Rittenhouse enacted justice through his actions rewrite the story. In reality, Rittenhouse had no clue that these men were remotely criminal in nature. He knew nothing of their pasts, their flaws or their errors.

But even if he had, it wouldn’t matter. Even if Rittenhouse had hunted down the men for their previous crimes, he’d still be in the wrong because he would not be enacting justice, nor are any citizens who believe they can choose the worth of a life.

Killing those with a criminal record is still abhorrent because those people are still human beings who deserve respect and justice. Those who justify the Rittenhouse incident as the rightful killing of criminals walk a dangerous line of dehumanization, and they have already ventured into unsightly cruelty. 

Shaping a postmortem narrative of vigilante justice isn’t a new phenomenon. Instead, the vilification of Rittenhouse’s victims follows a larger pattern of killings justified by a criminal or troubled past. During the George Floyd protests of 2020, critics used Floyd’s criminal record, including a five year prison sentence for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, as ammunition to justify his death. 

Blake, the man whose shooting prompted the protest Rittenhouse attended, was also a felon with a list of prior convictions. Even as far back as 2013, the traces of marijuana found in the body of Trayvon Martin became a piece of admissible evidence for George Zimmerman’s defense team.

And even outside of the Black Lives Matter movement, the idea of “othering” convicted felons and ex-cons is not unusual. It’s why long prison sentences have created a state of mass incarceration that far exceeds any other nation in the world. It’s why the ultimate punishment — death — is still dealt out in 27 states, including Nebraska. In our country, we seem to be obsessed with enacting pain and poverty upon those who break our laws. 

Now, I don’t mean to justify criminal actions or dismiss that some of these people have committed dangerous crimes. The last thing I want is to erase the facts of these convictions or pretend they didn’t happen. Particularly in the case of Rosenbaum, a registered sex offender, real harm was caused to people, which is abhorrent. I do not wish to argue otherwise.

But there is a difference between recognition and justification. All three men affected by the Rittenhouse shooting had paid for the damages they caused. They had paid their dues to society. Nonetheless, certain members of the right remain unable to see these men as human beings, which is troubling.

By viewing all criminals as others, we begin to degrade their humanity. We dismiss all hardships or obstacles that may drive a person to crime, and instead we view them as nothing more than parasites and punching bags, something for our tax dollars to leach into and our police to arrest and lock away in an endless loop.

It’s heartless. It’s cruel. And more than anything else, it’s dangerous. If vigilante citizens feel comfortable taking to the streets, certain that the people they may kill are criminals, what is next? What designates somebody as a criminal? Is it the way they act? Is it the way they look?

To me, it’s rather telling that as the Rittenhouse trial concludes, the trial for the murder of Amhaud Arbery is wrapping up as well. The Arbery case once again tells a tale of vigilante justice, emboldened by those who think themselves heroes. But the truth is, none of us deserve the right to enact justice. 

Everyone deserves the ultimate right — to live — and none of us deserve the power to take that away.

Emma Krab is a junior English and journalism major. Reach her at emmakrab@dailynebraskan.com.