Bernhard Goetz and Kyle Rittenhouse’s stardom roots right
Vigilantes have long had such appeal to the right because they allow conservatives to highlight their own victimhood and cultivate a siege mentality, which rallies their troops to defeat political opponents. In the process, they dress up racist arguments in a seemingly colorblind plea for armed self-defense. Nowhere was this clearer than in the case of Bernhard Goetz in 1984.
In the mid to late 1960s, many white Americans began to see liberals as enemies. These voters were fed up with rising crime rates, liberal courts that they said let criminals off the hook and put them back on the streets, and a government that seemed indifferent to their own struggles in life. . White men, in particular, resented the liberal social transformations accomplished by the black and women’s rights movements.
The state of cities contributed to this anger as crime increased, riots broke out, and personal finances dried up in the late 1960s and 1970s.
New York City seemed to be at the epicenter of this urban decay. Faced with the two-headed monster of bloated social spending and dwindling local tax revenues and federal contributions, the city sank into bankruptcy in 1975. Many conservatives blamed minorities, whom they saw as unworthy and dependent on social services paid for by their taxes. New York City’s failures, writes historian Kim Phillips-Fein, fueled “the anti-government ethos that was already gaining national momentum in the 1970s.”
The anger of white Americans helped propel President Ronald Reagan to power, prevented ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and ultimately spawned the War on Drugs.
It was in this context that Goetz became a right-wing hero. On December 22, 1984, the 37-year-old white electronics engineer shot and seriously injured four black teenagers – Barry Allen, James Ramseur, Darrell Cabey and Troy Canty – on the New York City subway after one of them asked for five dollars. With nowhere to escape, three of the four 18-19 year olds were hit by Goetz’s Smith & Wesson .38. Goetz then approached Cabey, who was lying face down, and said, “You seem fine, here’s another one,” before firing his final shot into the teenager’s back, severing his spinal cord. spinal.
The shooting and trial touched the nerves of white Americans who felt their security and financial security was under siege. The perceived decrease in public safety, along with the seemingly indifferent government, took center stage during Goetz’s trial and stoked his broad public support.
After the shooting, Goetz fled New York – blind to the fact that within hours he would be hailed nationwide by tabloids and galvanized audiences as the “subway vigilante.” Nine days after the shooting, he surrendered to a police station in Concord, NH. With his lanky posture and mousy appearance, to many, Goetz embodied the image of an abused white man who couldn’t stand it anymore. By taking matters into his own hands to maintain law and order, according to many, Goetz became the epitome of white American masculinity, which stood in stark contrast to the effeminate liberal state.
The way Goetz fit into the role turned him into a folk hero, earning frequent comparisons to actor Charles Bronson’s character in the 1974 vigilante film “Death Wish.” In the film, New York architect Paul Kersey avenges the murder of his wife and the rape of his daughter by killing bad guys to restore law and order.
The four teenagers, in turn, fell prey to racist assumptions about black crime — the very ideas that fueled the disastrous war on drugs in the years that followed. Many Americans never really considered the possibility that they might have been innocent victims. Conversely, many Goetz supporters sympathized and identified with him based on a shared sense of victimhood.
As fear of crime and victimization grew in the years leading up to the Goetz shooting, so did enthusiasm for gun ownership. Americans have found liberation in the growing number of neighborhood watch groups as well as the massive growth of the National Rifle Association.
Prosecutors charged Goetz with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and possession of firearms. He claimed self-defense, and a mostly white, male jury acquitted him of all charges except unlawful possession of firearms.
The trial opened the floodgates to a heated debate over the right to armed self-defense and vigilantism that, in the minds of many commentators, grew out of racialized fears of crime. Conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, a former speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon who later became Reagan’s communications director, called the public support for Goetz “a sign of moral health.” In contrast, Les Payne, Newsday’s black editor, pointed out that Goetz had “dealed a blow to white manhood.”
The Reagan years had fueled the belief among many white men that liberal forces were neutralizing them and their power. They saw this attack as the driving force behind the decline of American society more broadly.
In a press conference two weeks after the shooting, Reagan widely denounced vigilantism as the collapse of civilization. Yet he also expressed compassion for those “who are constantly threatened by crime and feel that law and order does not particularly protect them”. Americans shouldn’t blame the police for rising crime rates, the president said, but rather a “justice system that has been overzealous in protecting the rights of criminals and forgetting about the victim.” .
Similarly, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (RN.Y.) explained in a New York Times op-ed that support for the shooter was rooted in shared fears and frustrations. “We live in fear. We are the oppressed,” he sympathized. Instead of Goetz, he suggested, the four teenagers “who tried to harass him” should have been tried.
Fanning public fears of violent crime while evoking victimization—both concepts being deeply racialized—politicians such as D’Amato and Reagan created the fertile ground on which vigilante justice and violence could flourish.
This form of rhetoric, with its dual emphasis on self-reliance and the sanctity of victims’ rights, encouraged white Americans to arm themselves as a strategy to take responsibility and compensate for a neglectful state. By fueling the narrative that the state was failing Americans—while actively participating in cutting social programs—these politicians also found a way to successfully unite white Americans behind their cause for smaller government, but more severely punitive.
The right’s strategic embrace of color blindness—promising an end to racial discrimination while ultimately cloaking racial appeals behind seemingly racially neutral language—has prevented conservatives from blatantly encouraging Goetz. However, the new right’s subtle victims’ rights rhetoric created a framework for vigilante violence and tough-on-crime politics that continues to resonate today.
When Rittenhouse, then 17, shot and killed two men and injured another during protests in Kenosha in 2020, it didn’t take long for Republicans to praise him. Some GOP members offered him congressional internships while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claimed that Rittenhouse had done “what we should want citizens to do in such a situation: step forward to defend the community against mob violence”.
Goetz and Rittenhouse became famous political causes. Right-wing conservatives have vehemently backed both men, even raising money for their legal defenses. They did this because they recognized that the vigilante hero narrative serves as a political strategy to attract white Americans. Empathy with perceived white victimization while endorsing armed self-defense creates a sense of unity between Republicans and their aggrieved base. This rhetoric channels this grievance into political campaigns and battles as well as a shared sense of identity.
However, it also fuels the very feelings that fan the flames of vigilantism. Fueling gun enthusiasm among their base while opposing any restrictions on guns, conservative politicians have contributed to the devastating epidemic of gun violence plaguing America, all in the name of political gain. .