Who is Kyle Rittenhouse?
Some might know of him as the young white man who crossed state lines from Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin with an AR-15 style rifle—a semi-automatic weapon that was illegal for him to possess. They might recall that Rittenhouse, who idolized law enforcement, took it upon himself to defend the property of Kenosha against arson and looting incidental to Black Lives Matter protests in honor of Jacob Blake—a black man who was paralyzed after a police officer shot him seven times from behind. Rittenhouse, they might remember, took this action in his capacity as a member of a militia group called the Kenosha Guard, which had no formal legal authority to patrol the area1. They might have read that the Kenosha Guard, which nonetheless took to the streets, had made official statements welcoming “any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from evil thugs.” They would know that Rittenhouse, instead of defending Kenosha, ended up wreaking havoc on the Wisconsin city when he shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters and seriously injured another.
That is one version of the story. Others might know of him as the 17-year-old kid from Illinois who was crashing at his friend’s house in Kenosha (about a mile away from his own) when Black Lives Matter riots erupted over the officer-involved shooting of a black man named Jacob Blake. Kyle, they might recall, spent the next day helping to clean up graffiti that rioters had scrawled on a local high school. They might also remember that Kyle decided to stay on in Kenosha as riots escalated throughout the evening, and, to be safe, stopped by a family friend’s house to pick up a hunting rifle he’d received as a gift. Kyle, they might say, then went to downtown Kenosha to defend the area, help the injured, and generally keep the peace—not as a member of the Kenosha Guard, to which he never actually belonged, but simply as a concerned citizen. Once downtown, the story goes, Kyle was accosted by a convicted child molester, who chased him down in a parking lot. The man lunged at Kyle, who then shot and killed him. Soon thereafter, another man—who had been convicted of domestic violence—struck Kyle with a skateboard. Kyle ended up fatally shooting this man in return. Finally, by this account, Kyle encountered a third man, also convicted of multiple crimes, who pointed his gun at Kyle. Kyle, in response, shot and seriously injured this man.
What many might not know, but what I find interesting, is that the man Kyle Rittenhouse shot and seriously injured, a medic, had a tattoo on his bicep, which (as one account put it) was “vaporized” by the teen’s gun The tattoo featured a common emblem in the medical field known as the Rod of Asclepius: a single snake coiled around a staff. This symbol was inked between two banners—one above reading “Do no harm,” and another below reading “Do know harm.”
In any case, who Kyle Rittenhouse is depends, in the end, on which origin story of the United States one has taken as gospel.
The origin story of the United States is not unlike the creation myth of, say, the island of Fiji. Is it a stretch to compare any one of the Founding Fathers to Degei, the Serpent God who, as Fiji legend has it, nested two eggs that hatched the first humans on the Pacific Island? Perhaps it is, considering that, unlike the Serpent God, the Founding Fathers are historical figures whose existence has been proven by material evidence. But perhaps it is not, considering the mythical status the Founding Fathers have come to occupy within the American psyche.
Indeed, there is a natural tendency to overemphasize the difference between fact and fiction and, therefore, between history and myth. But to decide that “history” and “myth” are mutually exclusive because one involves known facts and the other is composed of invented ones elevates form over function. Facts aside, the origin story of the United States serves the same intended function as a creation myth—to construct common cultural meaning among a discrete populace.
“[T]he telling of the creation myth forms an essential teaching in the ritual of initiation,” writes psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz in Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths. This ritual is often performed via the traditional US history lesson, which has induced its own tribal cosmogony often referred to as nationalism or, its close cousin, patriotism. By traditional, I’m referring to the narrative most Americans learned in school that highlights rugged pioneers from Europe who discovered and established settlements on formerly wild lands, then rose up against the tyrannical taxation of their imperial overlords, transforming into revolutionary patriots who would found a new nation on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’m not, of course, referring to the version underlining the genocide of Indigenous peoples who were already on the lands “discovered” by such pioneers, or the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, who largely cultivated these lands during lifelong captivity.
Writing of Fijian lore, von Franz noted that people began repeating creation myths when they were “threatened by dissociation and panic and social disorder.” She writes that this ritual repetition was critical for maintaining a common sense of meaning during times of upheaval, and was an attempt to “try to restore the creation and the whole cosmos.” Amid crisis, the creation myth reaffirms cultural identity, and, in the meantime, perhaps satisfies a primal urge to envelop oneself in a widely shared and therefore reassuring story.
In these times of racial reckoning, economic uncertainty, shifting definitions of gender, on-and-off pandemics, MAGA mania and its attendant PTSD (post-Trump stress disorder), there is an obvious analogy, here, to the heated contention over which origin story of the United States—the one emphasizing freedom and equality, or the one foregrounding genocide and slavery—should prevail. This dissension represents more than a culture war about facts, but an existential contest over the meaning of life in America.
In Patterns of Creativity, von Franz identifies motifs that various creation myths seem to share across cultures. One is of the Deus faber, meaning “god the creator,” who is depicted as an artisan who “fashions the world as a dead object.” Or, really, from a dead object—e.g., first man made from clay, etc. The world and the beings who come to animate it, in such myths, are a product of the creator’s divine craftsmanship.
This Deus faber motif is also a latent theme of the freedom-and-equality version of the US origin story, where first the European settlers effectively create the New World, and later, the Founding Fathers recreate it by drafting the Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution. Here, something is made from virtually nothing—whether the New World, which was a supposed blank slate before it was graced by European pioneers, or the constitutional republic borne of the word of law.
There is, however, more to this version of the story. The world created by law in the Constitution was, both by default and design, made in the image of the Founding Fathers. By default, because citizenship within the several states was already limited to white persons, and the drafters simply used the term “citizen” as it already had been defined by the states. By design, because the Founding Fathers and the representatives who ratified the Constitution declined to specify otherwise by formally expanding this pre-existing category of citizenship. The Constitution’s silence on the matter amounted to tacit acceptance of the status quo, according to which the white person was the prototypical “citizen.”
Perhaps “prototype”—an initial mold or a model, often having to do with machinery— is an apt term for a societal template fabricated through the force of law. Only, this model is forged by violence instead of a hammer and blowtorch2. The heavy hand of enforcement is wielded to ensure one’s actions conform to the law, an iron fist sheathed in the velvet glove of the word. And, of course, this fist routinely targeted the Indigenous and the enslaved with its blows.
The version of early US history that highlights genocide and slavery recalls a common theme of creation myths where, according to von Franz, “the world is created as a sacrificial act.” The act of creation necessarily involves a first victim, often a being who is killed by the creator and from whose corpse the world subsequently springs forth. This dead object evokes that grating academic term “bodies,” from which white settlers extracted land and labor to “develop” the New World. The theme of the First Victim lures its listener’s gaze away from the mirage of the American Dream and returns it to the scene of the primeval crime.
The First Victim motif also illustrates the fundamental truth that, as von Franz writes, “it is not possible to create something without destroying something else at the same time […]” In other words, to declare what something is necessarily excludes what it is not, locking creation and destruction in an eternal dyad.
In the same way, no “citizen” can be created without simultaneously designating non-citizens. In the case of the prototypical US citizen, the emerging rights and subjectivity of the white resident did not occur in isolation; they were inversely correlated with the relegation of Indigenous peoples and the enslaved to background objects—whether as obstacles to territorial acquisition or as property3. In short, the “freedom and equality” of the prototypical citizen was relative and not absolute—it was, in practice, bound to the dispossession and subjugation of others.
The creation of various legal categories not only excludes certain members by definition; it compels this exclusion via violence. And during the early history of the United States, the prototypical citizen was enrolled to facilitate such enforcement. Through, say, automatic conscription in state militias or participation in slave patrols or the ad hoc deputization of individuals into a “posse”—white civilians were incorporated into the architecture of enforcement that consolidated both the antebellum system and the spoils of westward expansion.
It makes sense, then, too, that the prototypical citizen was also the audience to whom the word of law was addressed. As historian Winthrop D. Jordan writes in White over Black: “[T]he law told the white man, not the Negro, what he must do. […] It was the white man who was required to punish his runaways, prevent assemblages of slaves, enforce the curfews, sit on the special courts, and ride the patrols.” By default and by design, the white person during this period was a kind of citizen-enforcer, tasked with helping to police the legal division between “citizen” and “other”—between legal subject and legal object.
But isn’t all of this ancient history?
Yes, it’s true that just as a prototype is only a preliminary form, the category of “citizen” later evolved and expanded: the legal definition of “citizen” was eventually revised after the Civil War to include all persons born or naturalized within the United States. The prototype, then, was formally discontinued. But even if the prototypical citizen was no longer the only one in production, the impression generated by the prototype nonetheless perseveres as a symbol that inspires emulation. The prototype shapes our projections, and continues to entrap us within them.
The prototype, in other words, has an archetypal effect. Like a prototype, an archetype is an original image subject to imitation. However, unlike a prototype—which is contrived by the “creators” of law and the dictates (and dictators) of history—the archetype emerges from the collective unconscious and symbolizes some mystifying yet integral aspect of this communal psychic abyss.
“[W]henever known reality stops, where we touch the unknown,” writes von Franz in Patterns of Creativity, “there we project an archetypal image.” To illustrate this phenomenon, she describes maps of ancient Greece, with the known island terrain depicted in detail at their center, and “animals or monsters” at the lesser-understood edges. One such decoration for those outermost reaches of the imagination was the Ouroboros, that ancient circular icon of a serpent eating its own tail.
Yet, despite their mysterious origins, archetypes are often expressed through uncannily similar symbols across different cultures. The Ouroboros, for instance, has come to widely symbolize the endless cycle of death and rebirth, beginning and end. In this way, archetypes seem not to be purely coincidental, but rather indicative of something essential about the nature of the collective mind.
Constellation: this is the term Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (and von Franz’s mentor) coined for the emergence and interpretation of archetypes. Within the distant glimmer of stars, the symbol is already present, already embedded in this seemingly chaotic canvas, awaiting our endeavor to connect the dots and uncover the patterns in the sky. And, once constellated, the archetype may be performed by one, or projected onto another—both of whom become synonymous with the archetype’s symbolic meaning4.
But while archetypes may be mysteriously constellated, reflections of our collective unconscious, prototypes are manufactured—by law and history—as if from the lab of a mad scientist5. And today, in the United States, we are shadow-boxing with the archetypal after-effects of two prototypes that emerged during this early, peculiar history—what I call the Lawman and the Outlaw —as well as each one’s shadow aspect, the Vigilante.
The Lawman is larger than life, representing more than the sum of his apparent parts. He is represented by those self-styled sheriffs in Western films, like Wyatt Earp and his posse—valiant, stalwart men for whom the law is not some set of dead letters. The Lawman does not just recognize the law, he embodies it; it courses like blood through his veins. And insofar as he defends the law and nation against its detractors, the Lawman is a patriot.
The Outlaw, on the other hand, embodies violation. In and of himself, he is illegal. An intrinsic menace to law and order, the Outlaw is perpetually suspect, a threat to safety, eternally under surveillance. Larger than life in the sense that he is forever at-large, the Outlaw is the internal enemy.
Like yin and yang, the Lawman and the Outlaw are defined in relationship to each other. What is a Lawman without an Outlaw to bring to justice? What is an Outlaw without a Lawman to enforce his status as an outcast?
Lurking in the shadow of each of these characters is the Vigilante. A Vigilante could be easily mistaken for a Lawman, especially given the zeal with which he stakes his territory. Insofar as he flouts formal legal authority, the Vigilante could be easily mistaken for an Outlaw since he takes the law into his own hands, like a thief. A Vigilante, like a Lawman, is also the law—not necessarily the written word of law, but always his own law, a walking embodiment of his personal sense of (in)justice. If this personal sense of what is just or unjust happens to overlap with the word of law, then so be it; and so be it if it does not.
Whether in the silhouette of the Lawman or an Outlaw, the Vigilante, at his very worst, is a loose cannon and a danger to society; at his best, he is a righteous rebel—a revolutionary. It all depends on how you look at it.
After the Rittenhouse shootings, a trial inevitably ensued. Facing multiple charges for killing two people and seriously injuring another, Rittenhouse (via his legal team) claimed he acted in self-defense. According to the relevant Wisconsin statute, a defendant may use deadly force only if he believes it necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. That is the law, but its interpretation is another story.
The predictable legal arguments followed. As the Boston Globe summarized, the prosecution painted Rittenhouse as “a self-styled vigilante who intentionally inserted himself into a volatile situation,” and the defense characterized him as “’a 17-year-old kid trying to help his community’ who had no choice but to defend himself from the men he shot.” These were not just legal arguments attempting to guide the jury, but narratives illustrating that Rittenhouse, and his victims, had become larger than the sum of their parts, screens on which warring projections vied for totalizing characterization. Was Rittenhouse a brave Lawman called forth as part of a posse to restore order, or was he a loose cannon, a Vigilante? Were his victims menacing Outlaws or righteous rebels?
This morass of double meaning surrounding Rittenhouse and his victims evokes the duality of the ancient snake symbol. The animal’s venom could be used as a poison or an antidote, and the staff pictured in the Rod of Asclepius has been interpreted as a tool for balancing the snake’s two aspects, skillfully navigating good and evil, and, perhaps, ultimately realizing that there might not be any separation between the two.
But our everlasting prototypes do not give rise to more of this Zen-like contemplation of paradox. Instead, they rile up the armies in the ongoing battle of binaries, where nuance is sacrificed to safeguard narrative commitments.
The question before the jury at the Rittenhouse trial, and media voyeurs, was not simply about the validity of self-defense, but also about which of the two dueling creation myths of the United States would be victorious. Adherents to the creation myth highlighting freedom and equality were prone to seeing the spectacle as a classic Lawman and Outlaw story, while disciples of the creation myth underlining genocide and slavery would have perceived the same characters as Vigilantes.
Where the Right saw Rittenhouse as a Lawman, a patriotic defender of person and property against rioters, the Left decried Rittenhouse as a racist Vigilante who had no business patrolling and intimidating Black Lives Matter protesters. And, surely, the ongoing refrain around the Rittenhouse trial—wondering aloud what would happen if he were Black—resounded in the larger debate over his alleged guilt or innocence, reminding audiences how the image of the Outlaw has historically overshadowed the individuality of Black people in these United States. This also recalls the back and forth over whether Black uprisings were better characterized as riots or rebellions; participants in Black Lives Matter demonstrations, regardless of race, were positioned by the Left as acting out of righteous anger instead of reckless abandon. In the narrative championed by the Right, by contrast, each of Rittenhouse’s victims was an Outlaw, a mental image that subsumed them even though they were white; their criminal records and connection to Black Lives Matter were sufficient to sanctify the association6.
The Rittenhouse trial wasn’t simply a court case, but an archetypal battle, a confrontation over creation myths. Like the Ouroboros, the image interpreted to remind its beholders of the endless cycle of life, the prototypes forged by the forces of law and history seem to exist eternally, endlessly summoned to turn debates over current events into existential contests. This battle is larger than the Rittenhouse trial and is a feature of many battles waged over the course of an ongoing culture war over, say, whether a given incident of unrest is a “riot” or a “rebellion,” and its participants “patriots” or “terrorists,” “protesters” or “insurrectionists.” As the shedding of a snake’s skin symbolizes rebirth, the Lawman and the Outlaw are perpetually reincarnated—in willing and unwilling hosts.
US history does not move forward in a linear fashion but is instead relived in repeating cycles that each generation is prompted to break. This predicament recalls another interpretation of the Ouroboros symbol, this one from Norse mythology, where the serpent biting its own tail is called Jörmungandr, a bound monster that, according to this tradition, was destined to one day liberate itself.
In these perilous times, as we attempt to learn from histories that demand as much wisdom as we can muster from our repetitive collective lessons, we are presented with a quandary: to do no harm, you have to know what harm is. How do we reconcile and forestall future harm, and indeed transcend history, when one half of the country mistakes poison for the cure, and the other half mistakes the cure for poison? By exploring the mythic nature of history, as well as its recurring cast of characters, we can try to depolarize our perceptions of harm. But if we, as a nation, can’t even agree on that concept, then we will be desperately groping toward an uncertain future, blurred by our double vision.
1 The lack of authority was not for want of trying; the Guard had previously attempted, and failed, to be formally deputized as a “posse” of the Kenosha local police force.
2 Think, here, of that clichéd utterance from a beat cop in hot pursuit: “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” The fleeing culprit to whom this is addressed wouldn’t halt and turn on his heel, hands up, just because he was ordered to “stop,” but would do so instead because he did not want to get shot—because he feared “violence,” legal scholar Robert Cover’s catchall term for various means of enforcing the law in his seminal essay “Violence and the Word.” Whether a given punishment for violating the law amounts to a fine or incarceration or even death, enforcement effectively binds you to the law of your jurisdiction.
3 Recalling the term “illegal”—the derogatory reference some use to describe undocumented persons in the United States—the Indigenous and the enslaved, excluded from the category of “citizen,” were, given that they were non-citizens, in a sense, “present in a country without official authorization.”
4 “When consciousness is held in thrall by the power of the archetype,” writes Jungian psychotherapist Edward C. Whitmont, “the complex which is formed around the archetype’s nuclear core, and its projection, make it next to impossible to come near to the reality of the person.”
5 The replication of a prototype brings to mind yet another concept with the suffix –type: stereotype. We all know too well what a stereotype is, but the word’s etymology—referring to the static content mass produced from a printing plate—is perhaps a lesser known but exact illustration of the archetypal proliferation of prototypes.
6 See, e.g., George Zimmerman, for whom the fact of his ethnic identity as Latinx was ultimately subsumed by his identity as a self-styled neighborhood-watchman-cum-vigilante in his fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.