What was at first thought to be a knee-jerk reaction, a simple trend in social activism, has proven itself once again to be a movement showing no signs of slowing down. This past week, Black Lives Matter protests hit the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The 29-year-old Black man fought for his life at the hospital after being shot seven times in the back. The protests saw masses of people marching and chanting, but were also met with looters, violence, and tension between demonstrators and armed civilians. Things took a deadly turn when Kyle Rittenhouse opened fire on a group he was scuffling with, resulting in the deaths of two people and the wounding of a third. Now, the conversation has shifted to an understanding of how this all came to be. How in 2020, a 17-year old white boy traveled state lines with a long gun and murdered two demonstrators protesting the shooting of an unarmed black man. The words resonate the more they are uttered: this is America.
“Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” Tucker Carlson said during his Fox show on Wednesday night. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” His words have been met with heated backlash, but they may have hit a point – though unintentionally. What has happened in the U.S. by way of ethics is a considerable trickle-down of accountability and watering down of moral culpability. For example, when President Trump expressed an urge to visit the broken city, Governor Evers (D) of Wisconsin wrote “I, along with other community leaders who have reached out, are concerned about what your presence will mean for Kenosha and our state. I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing. I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together,” as reported by CBS. When this sort of concern is expressed regarding systems of leadership in our country, then it is no surprise that a 17-year old has seized the opportunity to exercise his own moral superiority.
Trickle-down phenomena occur when the systems above allow a degree of control or benefit to flow off the edges and into the cups of those below. We’ve come to know the term as a political idiom due to its use in “trickle-down economics.” So what is this “trickle-down accountability” that I’m addressing? Is it even real? The answer is yes. Imagine a general of an army, powerful and brutish. Now this man fails to deliver any orders to his lower lieutenants, so they talk among themselves, but they struggle to arrive at a plan too. Even the sergeants below them fall short. As a result, the lowly privates whose minds are open to the easiest manipulation become the ones in charge. And being as they are, they take the reigns and decide on the most grievous and unjust of practices. Their superiors chastise them, blame them for the disaster they’re in, and rip the soldiers of their rank. One would argue that it is not the privates who are truly at fault, but the ranking officers who chose not to act. Their indecision and lack of accountability put the soldiers in the current scenario. The analogy can easily be drawn to the present issue at hand.
From the side of militias seeking “law and order” to the Black Lives Matter movement fighting for justice and change concerning law enforcement, both parties would agree that the individuals in charge have dropped the ball. They have allowed fires to burn, corrupt police to remain on the force, and political division to seep into every facet of daily life. The commoner is now responsible for the state, and we are left to fend for ourselves.
And as a result, we water down morality. A construct that is perhaps the most complex faculty of human experience, a tool that we teach our children to nurture with care but haphazardly hand off the loaded gun to our superiors. It is a difficult thing to understand and utilize, and we constantly grapple with it in every waking hour. So, we water it down to make it more easily digestible. We speak in generalities, paint with broad strokes, and maintain mores that fit neatly into our perception of the status quo. It’s not that morality becomes black and white, but it becomes brittle. Its weakness is more an indication of our debilitating ethics, our diminishing humanity.
That is not to say that all is lost. Kyle Rittenhouse has been arrested and is facing charges, and hopefully an investigation will be sought in the shooting of Jacob Blake. But in all of this chaos, as we fight to rationalize murder, arson, and robbery, we must be careful not to hand off morality to someone below. To put it simply, the buck stops with us.