You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
— “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Bob Dylan (YT)
America was rocked in May 2022 when Salvador Ramos, a freshly-minted 18-year-old, walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and opened fire on several classrooms, ultimately killing 19 children and two teachers before being shot to death himself by a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Recently, video footage from the exterior and interior of Robb Elementary School over the time of the shooting was released, causing a fresh wave of scrutiny and coverage of the disturbing event.
The footage shows Mr. Ramos making entry into the school and then sauntering almost casually into the hall, even occasionally stroking his long hair and swinging his rifle one-handed at his side. (Interestingly, the footage seems to capture the moment at which he may have made eye contact with fourth-grade teacher Eva Mirales, who, according to the testimony of the survivors from her classroom, had approached the door to secure it and encountered Mr. Ramos in the process. It seems to be at this point that he suddenly becomes energized, raises his rifle, breaches the classroom, and almost immediately opens fire. From a Girardian perspective, it is notable that Mr. Ramos’ behavior in the hallway markedly changes the moment he has a first social encounter inside the school, meeting someone’s eyes, and only then does the violence begin in earnest.)
Apart from the moments that a disturbed teenager wrecks large-scale violence on a population of innocents, another moment in the footage caught considerable attention. That moment is when a police officer in the hallway stops and checks his phone quite near the school’s camera. Interestingly, his phone clearly has a lock screen of the Punisher skull, in its variation with the “thin blue line” American flag superimposed over the skull.
This officer happened to be Officer Ruben Ruiz, husband of the fourth-grade teacher who may have been the first person at Robb to take fire from Mr. Ramos. She ultimately passed from her injuries.
In modern culture, the cell phone is an extension of the self. For many, the choice of the image on the lock screen, which will be viewed possibly hundreds of times per day by the user, is almost like a tattoo. It’s an active choice of not only self-expression — how others will see us when they happen to glance at our lock screen — but how we view ourselves, who we understand ourselves to be, and to what we might aspire.
The Punisher skull originates from a character created inside the Marvel universe in the late 1980s to be a nemesis for Spider-Man. Over time, response by the fans earned him enough traction to merit his own spin-off series. The Punisher’s origin story is that he becomes a vigilante anti-hero after his own family is murdered by the Mafia and their murderers elude justice because of a corrupt legal system. Over the course of time and myriad writers, the Punisher developed various backstories as to why he chose the skull as a logo, but these can all ultimately be summed up into this:
The Punisher lived in niche comic book fandom for several decades until he witnessed a new transformation and socialization among the broader culture with the rise of Chris Kyle’s celebrity. Mr. Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL who became famous for having a record number of confirmed kills as a sniper during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and whose story was memorialized in the film American Sniper, greatly admired the Punisher. After Mr. Kyle’s discharge from the Navy, he started his own company, Craft International, which specialized in tactical training, and chose as its logo a stylized version of the Punisher skull.
Mr. Kyle commented in an undated speech about the history of the Craft International logo. Speaking of his Navy SEAL team, Mr. Kyle states: “We put the Punisher skull all over our body armor, our helmets, every house we went into, if we killed them, we spray-painted their house, just to make sure they knew we were there, to put a little fear into their hearts.” He continued to describe the rest of the logo: “The Templar cross — it’s because we’re all Crusaders and … savages need that.”
Referencing the Templar-cross-crosshairs over the right eye, Mr. Kyle explains that a brother-in-arms in Iraq had been shot in his right eye in combat, eventually dying three years later from complications caused by the injury. Explaining the company’s motto that surrounds the skull image, Mr. Kyle states that this friend, when asked about the wisdom of Navy SEALS engaging pirates, responded, “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems.”
With respect to the image’s use by U.S. armed forces in Iraq — it would later be adopted as fashionable among the Iraqi police, but that is another matter — it is important to note that there is an argument for using marginal imagery like death’s heads in war, especially by foreign invader-occupier troops. Such an argument might assert that the death’s head imagery invokes the marginality of the war experience with all its excess violence, and, in being used by invader-occupier troops, also ensures sufficient recognition of differentiation between invader and native. When the invader-occupier wears a death’s head, he or she ensures that natives are likely to recoil in horror, rather than greet them as potential friends. This negative social response, in turn, helps the invader-occupier maintain their differentiation and not “go native,” an outcome that would presumably not only frustrate the original purposes of the invader-occupier mission but also provoke a possible identity crisis in the person’s psyche. As I will discuss in more detail later in this post, my argument here does not touch on the wartime, foreign use of the death’s head image, but to civil contexts. (Nor will this post address the symbolism of a Templar’s cross-crosshairs over the right eye, which is occult for several reasons, but instead this post will focus on the symbolism of the skull alone.)
Does Violence Solve Problems?
Mr. Kyle’s choice of Craft International’s motto, the line uttered by his friend, “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems”, is intriguing. Again, in a wartime context, such an aphorism might stir the warrior ethos, differentiating the experience of the masculine in war from the experience of the masculine in a domestic setting in which a risk-averse mother might be present. However, Mr. Kyle’s choice to bring this logo, the Punisher skull, and the motto, back into the domestic, civil context is perhaps the most troublesome.
In starting his company, gaining attention as a record-setting sniper, with an autobiography (the title of which was itself a nod to a particular story in the Punisher) and a Hollywood film deal on the horizon, Mr. Kyle came to some amount of fame, especially among those in and around the experience of the U.S. military. In his retirement from the military, Mr. Kyle became attentive to veterans with PTSD and developed a habit of taking some such veterans to a shooting range, deeming it therapeutic.
A woman who worked at the school in Midlothian, Texas, which Mr. Kyle’s daughters attended, approached Mr. Kyle one day, asking if he would see her son, Eddie Ray Routh. Mr. Routh had served in the U.S. Marines, had a bit of a checkered past with respect to drugs, mental health, and PTSD, and was struggling emotionally and mentally. Mr. Kyle agreed to see Mr. Routh, and, on February 2, 2013, picked up Mr. Routh and took him to a country-bumpkin shooting range at Rough Creek Lodge, some hour and a half away from Midlothian, along with Mr. Kyle’s friend, Chad Littlefield.
Sometime during the trip, Mr. Kyle, who was driving, texted Mr. Littlefield in the front passenger seat, “This dude is straight up nuts,” to which Mr. Littlefield responded, “Watch my six.” Despite the impression that Mr. Kyle appears to have had of Mr. Routh, he still drove on to Rough Creek. Alone at the range, the trio raised the red flag and began their shooting.
At some point, Messrs. Kyle and Littlefield walked down range to reset their targets, leaving Mr. Kyle’s Colt 1911 and 9mm Sig Sauer on the range. Mr. Routh then used both weapons to shoot and kill first Mr. Littlefield, and then Mr. Kyle, who suffered six shots in the back and in the head. Mr. Kyle died aged 38 and left behind a wife and two young children. According to the Washington Post, after the killings, Mr. Routh drove off in Mr. Kyle’s Ford F-250, upon which was a Punisher skull decal.
The former representative from Kentucky, Rep. Ron Paul, tweeted at the time:
It is notable that Mr. Kyle brought the death’s head used on the battlefield back to his homeland — not only bringing the margin back to the center, but even popularizing this marginal experience by wearing the death’s head on company shirts for TV appearances to stream into homes and businesses.
Of course, it was back in his homeland, only a small drive from where he lived, that Mr. Kyle, who had managed to survive the far foreign desert and hostile environment of Iraq, met his untimely end by being shot multiple times in the back — as many of his own kills had likely been shot. Perhaps it is this to which Rep. Paul refers: the strangeness not only of a sniper meeting a death markedly similar to the death he had dealt out, but the perils of bringing marginal wartime imagery and aphorisms to one’s homeland. As Rep. Paul notes, “treating PTSD at a firing range doesn’t make sense.” (Note: Therapists have made arguments that there are treatments for PTSD that would make use of a firing range, but this would be conducted in a careful, therapeutic manner under the guidance of a trained professional.)
It is not clear why Mr. Kyle, who survived roughly seven years of the Iraq War arguably through some degree of situational awareness, continued to drive on to a shooting range with someone he had already determined to be “straight up nuts” and whose friend had also confirmed the strangeness of Mr. Routh’s behavior. Furthermore, it is also unclear why Mr. Kyle would allow himself to walk down range, with his back to Mr. Routh, while also leaving him alone and within reach of loaded firearms.
A defensible argument for Mr. Kyle’s behavior might lie in his own company’s motto: “violence does solve problems.” Perhaps it is the case that Mr. Kyle had consciously or unconsciously oriented himself toward the necessity of uncontextualized violence, rather than to some higher purpose. This choice might explain why he may have even believed that Mr. Routh might improve upon arrival at the shooting range, and why he would be so careless in leaving Mr. Routh alone with loaded firearms. Mr. Kyle may have been focused that day on his own shooting experience.
Even Mr. Routh seems to have some implicit agreement with Craft’s motto. Four months after the killings, he commented:
“I shot them because they wouldn’t talk to me. […] I was just riding in the back seat of the truck, and nobody would talk to me. They were just taking me to the range, so I shot them. I feel bad about it, but they wouldn’t talk to me. I’m sure they’ve forgiven me. […] They weren’t talking to me. So I had to kill them.”
From Mr. Routh’s perspective, using violence against Messrs. Kyle and Littlefield did solve his problems, at least in the short term. A Texas Ranger who arrived on the scene of the murders later testified:
“This was a brutal killing. […] There was no question that I was dealing with someone very violent. … You can’t accidentally shoot someone that many times.”
It seems that, at a minimum, Craft’s motto was not well-thought out if the intention was to create something positive and life-giving. Mr. Kyle took the motto from his friend, who died from violence himself. The words were not “war does solve problems” but “violence does solve problems”. There is no sense of context, but rather a blanket statement that violence is most of the time, or perhaps even always, purposeful.
And who knows if Mr. Routh, already so beset by emotional and mental struggles, was consciously or unconsciously affected by the Punisher skull he must have seen as he stepped into Mr. Kyle’s pickup truck that day? Shortly after the killings, Mr. Routh told a police officer, “hell itself is walking on earth right now.” While many factors seem to have contributed to Mr. Routh’s choices that day, it is certainly possible that that image helped incite Mr. Routh to manifest death itself that day when given the opportunity. According to the autopsy evidence presented at Mr. Routh’s trial, one of the shots fired at Mr. Kyle, which would have been instantly fatal, was at his aorta — right where his Craft International shirt displayed the Punisher skull with the Templar crosshairs.
Mr. Kyle’s carefully chosen logo did not die with his body out at Rough Creek. Mr. Routh’s murder trial was underway almost simultaneously with the release of the film American Sniper and the frenzy of coverage launched Mr. Kyle to a new level of posthumous fame. With that widespread coverage and a film that grossed over $500 million, one could argue that the Punisher skull that Mr. Kyle championed became untethered from Craft International and even from Mr. Kyle himself, and launched on the heels of a celebrity death into the mainstream.
A Flag Divided
When the Punisher skull socialized itself into the mainstream after the death of Mr. Kyle, it became at some point amalgamized with the “Thin Blue Line” flag that is superimposed over the U.S. flag and the resulting image used by some American law enforcement officers.
(This post will not here address the Thin Blue Line flag in its original incarnation — a simple black flag with a blue stripe across the middle — but in its now more popular incarnation as superimposed over the American flag, as well as its incarnation of both over the Punisher skull.)
As this became more popularized, the use of the Punisher skull drew some criticism. In 2017, the Solvay, N.Y. police department was asked about the Punisher symbol which it had chosen to display on its vehicles, allowing us an insight into how law enforcement officers and departments that use the image might understand the symbol’s meaning:
"The Punisher symbol on the patrol vehicles of the Solvay Police Department, while similar to the symbol featured in Marvel comics, is our way of showing our citizens that we will stand between good and evil," the statement from Chief Allen Wood and Lt. Derek Osbeck said.
As the Solvay Police Department suggested, the self-understanding is that the Thin Blue Line represents something like the necessity of law enforcement to protect civil society from descending into lawless chaos. However, the U.S. flag is a symbol of unity for Americans, a rallying point for all to celebrate the much-lauded American values. The Thin Blue Line superimposed on the U.S. flag suggests that civil society in the United States is itself divided from within by chaos and order, which is a very different assertion than a moderate policing of order within the civil society while chaos lurks without. While one might assert that that was always the case, a counterargument might be that, when we begin to use certain symbols, they have a way of manifesting themselves far more than we might imagine.
The use of the Punisher skull to capture both the U.S. flag and the Thin Blue Line flag becomes even more problematic, presenting an American society divided within by chaos and order and introducing a death’s head. The very marginal image of war used by Mr. Kyle and his team to kill enemies while they were invader-occupiers in a foreign land has now been moved into a domestic context, which, by definition, is supposed to be largely free from strife and war.
Invoking Godwin’s Law: another organization whose activities can broadly be construed under the umbrella of “law enforcement” (as the state understands that term), also used a skull or “death’s head” symbol: the Schutzstaffel of the Nationalsozialistischer Staat. As shown below in the portrait of Heinrich Himmler, who headed the Schutzstaffel, the Schutzstaffel wore on their visor caps an image of the death’s head or totenkopf. He even fashioned rings, designed by an occultist, with a totenkopf at the center to be bestowed as an honor to select members of the Schutzstaffel. Mr. Himmler also formed a branch of the Schutzstaffel called the Totenkopfverbände — the death’s head units — who were tasked with the work of the NS-Staat’s concentration and extermination camps. The Totenkopfverbände wore the death’s head on their visor caps like all the Schutzstaffel, but also on their collars as insignia.
Was the use of the totenkopf useful for the Schutzstaffel? It is true that the NS-Staat was successful to some degree, managing a world war, slaughtering millions, terrorizing a continent, and wrecking havoc on history forever, but one questions if the NS-Staat achieved its original objective. The original objective, it seems, was something along the lines of establishing a thousand-year reign and a unified Deutschland freed of the enemies within who had polluted her and held her captive from reaching her destiny. If nothing else positive can be said of the NS-Staat, we can say at least that its leadership was highly attentive to symbols. It hardly seems an overstatement to suggest that the Reich leaders themselves would have judged the success of any state on the symbols it used.
However terrible and all-encompassing the regime was, though, it lasted just 12 years — hardly a lifetime. The NS-Staat ultimately collapsed during the Second World War; Mr. Himmler was no longer on speaking terms with Adolf Hitler or many members that had once constituted the leadership of the Reich and was forced into hiding as the Allies forged into Germany. Eventually, Mr. Himmler was captured by the British and committed suicide via cyanide pill (although his daughter Gudrun disputed this account, maintaining that he was murdered).
Ofc. Ruiz of Uvalde, Texas is very likely not even aware that the Schutzstaffel even used the totenkopf so similar to the death’s head that he chose for his lock screen some 80 years later. Instead, it is more likely that he adopted the imagery for the same reasons that the Solvay, N.Y. police department gave — that he imagined himself as an officer of the United States, standing on the thin line that holds society together, threatening the evil that plagues society with the vengeance of death — imagining that he, like Mr. Kyle, would be the one to stand against those who would harm civil people.
It’s a tempting, even sympathetic, view: a man wishes to give his life for the protection of civil society by setting out to its fringe and meting out “justice” to those who would harm it. However, we must realize that symbols are much larger than ourselves, that it is all too easy to justify our own behavior, and especially that bringing death’s head symbols into civil society is extremely dangerous. The NS-Staat could have well given similar reasons for the use of the totenkopf: that it symbolized that they were the preservers of Ordnung against chaos and would deal ruthlessly with anyone who threatened the civil society they were in the process of creating. History, as we know, has other judgments.
Symbols We Live and Die By
“Today, mere self-preservation forces all of us to look at the world anew, to think strange new thoughts, and thereby to awaken from that very long and profitable period of intellectual slumber and amnesia that is so misleadingly called the Enlightenment.”
— Peter Thiel, “The Straussian Moment”
As we approach symbols, it is very important to have a proper understanding of the human mind, especially in a Western world marred by Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thought has given humans a very novel understanding of free will. However, human thinking is not wired to see reality correctly and is certainly not wired to understand correctly one’s own choices and behavior at every moment in time. Evolution has never rewarded the most ardent truth-seekers among homo sapiens but instead the ones that are able to make whatever set of choices that lead to reproductive success.
To understand themselves properly, every human should understand themselves first as someone who came to this planet as a result of many repeated sets of choices that led to a successful reproductive outcome and that their entire being is as a result strongly wired with default settings of which they are largely unaware. If humans understood themselves less as fully rational, completely self-aware and autonomous beings and more as walking bags of blood and bones the purpose of which is to sustain and haul around reproductive organs, the world would be a happier place. This is not a reductionist, materialist comment, but one that situates the human in anno Domini 2022 properly. The Incarnation of Christ into human form is full evidence that humans have a telos that is so noble and self-understanding that it will partake in the divine life of the Trinity in the world to come, but it does not mean that we are all quite there just yet.
We tell ourselves we are completely rational and completely able to freely choose, but this is a lie that flies in the face of evolution. We believe that we can freely enter into relationship with symbols, that a symbol can mean justice for us, that it can mean the protection of a civil society against evil, that it can mean something like honor.
But after some time — much sooner than we would like to think — symbols like these inevitably allure us into a danse macabre beyond our conscious control. These are foolish choices. We will never serve ourselves: we do not even know who we are nor can we objectively comprehend the totality of our being. There are many forces at work in the world far more powerful than our weak, feeble, and disintegrated selves. If we are not careful, we will unconsciously become devoted to these symbols and set something in motion that will soon loosen itself out of our grip. We must tread carefully, lest we too find ourselves in the position of Ofc. Ruiz, who looked too long on death and one day found death looking back at him.
That Man No More May Die
What would Jesus think about the Punisher skull? It’s a simple answer: the Triune God abhors death. Yes, it is true that God in His totality does not have feelings in the way that humans have feelings, but we can best understand the Triune God’s relationship to death as one of absolute abhorrence and hate. He is completely repugnant to death because He is life itself. James Alison explains in Raising Abel:
“We know, because we followed Jesus when he was explaining it to the Sadducees, that Jesus understood full well that for God death is not, so that God’s loving and sustaining of a person is not something which is interrupted or diminished by death. This means that Jesus was able to conduct his life in a way that was not moved by death. And this not because he was fleeing from death, or running towards it in a self-destructive way, which tend to be our problems. It was because it was not a reality which marked his imagination, since his imagination was entirely fixed on the creative and living presence of God who knows not death. What can be perceived by someone who is not marked by death is the way in which the rest of us live, without being aware of it, in the shadow of death. A poor parallel might be the way in which someone arriving from an Islamic country, in which there is no alcohol to buy or to consume, is able to perceive something which we scarcely realize: the degree to which our whole society and its social life depend on the dangerous drug, alcohol. Only someone from outside can perceive that clearly. Only someone who has not received his identity from a culture that is bound in by death can see clearly the way in which the whole culture is wrapped around by death. It is in this sense that Jesus was able to understand with perfect clarity the way that human culture, including the culture in which he lived, is produced by, and runs towards, death. […] Because of this he was able to go to his death as if it were not. And not only to go towards it as if it were not, but to make of it a show, a sign so that others might live in the same way.”
Christ’s work at the Crucifixion is the beginning of the unraveling of death. As He makes His way down the Via Dolorosa from Jerusalem to Calvary, Christ is retracing Cain’s steps from the City back to the Garden from which Adam and Eve were expelled. In the Garden that is Golgotha, Christ’s Cross becomes the Tree of Life, and He its fruit: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:54). Christ completely redeems the Fall of Adam and opens up a door to completely expunge death from this world by offering to us His immortal nature.
It is only with reference to Christ that we can properly understand and grapple with death. As the icon above shows, Christ is conquering death with His death: the skull lays far below His Feet and the principality of death is liberated by the Precious Blood of life itself. All the spiritual practices of memento mori originated in Christian understanding where the skull was not presented as some image to strike fear into the vagabonds on the outskirts (more or less) of society, but instead as a reminder of the fleeting nature of this life relative to the eternity of the world to come that is achieved through the Cross.
Jesus is only presented on the Cross as dead and dying so that we might understand our relationship to death: how we have brought it into this world, enculturated it, and constructed human societies around an innocent victim. Christ on the Cross is fully human, just like us, so that we can understand the means by which we gain eternal life. But He is never presented in so deathly an image as that of a skeleton — Jesus barely allowed His Blood to run cold before He resurrected. Instead, He is presented as death in its most human form, a Person just this side of death, only to show us the door out of death and into eternal life, through the Person of the Innocent Victim. Death cannot contain Him.
For the human, there is ultimately only one choice to make: the way of death or the way of life. This side of paradise, we are shackled into mortal coils and circumstances that influence us more than we would like to ever know. Given our fragmented, disintegrated selves, we must serve somebody. We cannot freely choose, in real time, all of our own actions, thoughts, or behavior. We will never be fully knowing and fully conscious and fully capable, but there is a God Who is, Who knows all, sees all, understands all. It is here we can lean into the hierarchy of Heaven, allowing ourselves to enter into relationship and allowing a space for our dumb, unconscious selves to be positively programmed. It is in all the symbols, language, and fragments that we can steal from Heaven and bring down to this earthly plane to nurture within ourselves our desire for life, for growth, for love, and for the beautiful Kingdom that lies so far beyond the domain and grasp of the evil of death.
We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
— 2 Corinthians 4:7-11
 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (ESV)