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The Kyle Rittenhouse trial has turned criminal justice debates upside down

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Twitter discourse is the worst place for serious discussion of a controversial judicial proceeding, as evidenced anew by the ongoing trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot three men and killed two of them during last year’s riots over a police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The MAGA right is deeply invested in Rittenhouse’s innocence on grounds of self-defense, while the leftier side of Twitter is convinced of his guilt, in some cases making (since deleted) jokes about prison rape they’d consider unconscionable in any other context.

A similar inversion of usual political alignments on the justice system is evident in discussion of the treatment of people incarcerated for their involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. The very conservatives most likely to characterize the criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by then-President Donald Trump himself as “the jailbreak bill” suddenly sound like criminal justice reformers. And while that crowd is busy lamenting the plight of the detained rioters, their progressive and anti-Trump interlocutors back the blue against the insurrectionists.

The pro-Trump writer and social media influencer Julie Kelly helpfully synthesized the two controversies. “The bloodlust you see for Kyle Rittenhouse is exactly what I see every day for January 6 defendants,” she wrote on Twitter. “Up against corrupt prosecutors, a vicious news media, and libelous social media influencers. If they could arrest and charge all of us, they would.” And while Kelly is hyperbolic, there is a noticeable increase in liberal enthusiasm for the FBI and otherwise defundable police when Trump and his associates are in the crosshairs.

There’s something to be said for paying attention to the human element in real-world situations rather than just ideological abstractions. But this inversion illustrates how questions of guilt vs. innocence and justice vs. government abuse cannot be reduced to “Who? Whom?”

“My side or demographic group innocent, yours guilty” is a tempting conclusion to draw in a period of intense political division and disagreement over who is the reliable narrator of basic facts. But it is not an approach likely to lead to justice.

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