Kyle Rittenhouse, Kenosha, and the Sheepdog Mentality

Rittenhouse appears to live in a fantasy world where police and car dealerships are more endangered than unarmed Black men, and where he is a warrior.

Alex Lourie/Redux

“I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried out by six.” Most gun owners have heard that nugget of homicidal wisdom, often from the person who sold them their guns. In other words: Better to attend your own trial by jury for killing someone than your own funeral for hesitating and being killed instead.

The final count on Tuesday night in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was 12 and 12: a dozen pallbearers for two homicide victims, and 12 yet-to-be-impaneled jurors for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who allegedly shot them with his AR-15-style rifle. The footage of their killings is grainy and sickening. It shows, amid general mayhem and gunfire, a man who appears to shoot another with a rifle, then say into a cellphone, “I just killed somebody.” Later that same man is pursued by a mob down the center of a street. They catch up with him, he falls to the ground, and one strikes him with a skateboard. From a supine position the gunman shoots two people, one fatally. The other, blasted in the right arm, had been running at the killer with a pistol drawn.

I have seen many videos like this, and not long ago I profiled John Correia, a YouTube gun-world celebrity who has seen more videos of gun violence than perhaps any other human being who has ever lived. On YouTube and other social media, the gun channels are filled with real-life videos of violence—think Cops, with all the boring parts edited out and most of the violent parts unblurred. I could say that these scenes never cease to sicken, but the truth is that one gets used to them after a while. Rittenhouse, who was arrested yesterday, was reportedly a gun enthusiast and active on social media in support of Blue Lives Matter. I don’t know whether Rittenhouse spent his free time watching people pulling guns on one another, but I know from experience that these videos are hugely popular in the gun world that he was part of, and if you watch one, you probably watch hours of them.

The availability of these videos is perhaps the biggest change in gun culture in our lifetimes, and one of the results is mayhem like this. The shift has suddenly made violence against humans (as opposed to animals) imaginable—whereas in the past, most people could live their whole life without witnessing or taking part in a gunfight. The videos emphasize the bad things that can happen to you if your draw time is too slow, or your magazine too small. Now one can watch videos and imagine oneself not stalking a deer but defending others, in improbable heroic scenarios once limited to action movies.

That is the fantasy that seemed to have motivated Rittenhouse’s trip to Kenosha. He was interviewed hours before the shooting by The Daily Caller’s Richie McGinniss. He explained his presence in Kenosha by saying that “people are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business.” He looks preposterously young for this role, not like some ’roid-crazed militiaman but like a kid who has somehow guessed that the code to his father’s gun locker is his own birthday. Rittenhouse has been called a “white supremacist,” but none of his comments during interviews at the scene mention race. (Other comments may surface later, and his social-media accounts reportedly show plenty of sympathy for cops, and none for the protesters.) Instead his comments mention what is by far the most common topic in gun-enthusiast channels, which is what to do to preserve life and property using guns.

Before the advent of these videos, to be a concealed carrier meant entering uncharted cognitive territory. If you have never walked around with a gun in your pocket, you probably have poor intuitions about how it feels—the power; the discomfort of having a hunk of metal or plastic impeding your gait and mobility; most of all, the sense of responsibility. The writer Dan Baum strapped on a .38 in the course of researching a 2013 book on gun culture and described the experience well:

Everything around me appeared brilliantly sharp, the colors extra rich, the contrasts shockingly stark. I could hear footsteps on the pavement two blocks away ... It made me more organized. Wearing the gun, I was Mr. Together. There was no room for screwing up when I was equipped to kill.

Baum would avoid trouble, because he didn’t want to be anywhere near a fistfight, unstable people, or anything that might raise the possibility that he would fire his gun. The feeling of empowerment comes with a wearying imperative of caution: You do not seek out danger, and instead you live the most boring life possible, to avoid using the murder machine you have for some reason decided to attach awkwardly to your midsection.

What distinguishes Baum, who crossed the street to avoid violence, from Rittenhouse, who carried openly and crossed state lines to find violence? One is a seersucker-wearing, middle-aged journalist, and the other is an adolescent. The other salient difference, though, is that at 17, Rittenhouse has never known a world where owning a gun did not go along with what is sometimes known as the “sheepdog mentality”—the belief that your gun exists to protect others, and that you should rush in to perform that duty. Many of the gun videos you find online emphasize exactly this, to an audience of men.

The channels are not sinister in themselves. Correia combines old-fashioned moralism—including regular reminders that you are accountable to Jesus and the law for every round you fire, and that acts of brutality toward the vulnerable are among the worst you can commit—with extreme violence. I came away from a day with Correia thinking that the world is probably a safer place because he is packing heat.

But the videos themselves are insidious. Most people in the United States, allowing for wild variation in race, class, and education, are victims of violence only very rarely. Watching the videos, however, invites you to simulate violence at an extraordinary rate, much higher than we are mentally equipped to manage. (Correia himself has seen tens of thousands of them, and he posts a new one to his channel about once or twice a day.) The effect of these videos is to habituate viewers to that violence, to train them to imagine themselves in it. Training yourself to imagine something makes it seem more likely to happen, and primes your instincts to react to it—and, I suspect, initiate that violent reaction and overdo it when circumstances could be resolved more peacefully.

Rittenhouse appears to have been living in a fantasy world where police and car dealerships are more endangered than unarmed Black men in traffic stops, and where he was a warrior and self-defender, rather than a youngster who foolishly enrolled himself in a midwestern version of the Children’s Crusade. I can only imagine his fear when he saw the crowd coming for him—and the crowd’s fear, when it saw that a near-child was wildly firing a rifle better suited to a person with judgment and good training. I do not expect that the jury will be forgiving.