Kent State and polarized history

Like others of my generation, certain dates come freighted with meaning. November 22 -- the day JFK was killed. April 4 -- when MLK, Jr. died. June 6 -- the day Bobby was shot. But rounding out the grisly death parade is May 4. On that date in 1970, at the height of US involvement in Vietnam, a raucous, sometimes violent 4 days of anti-war protests came to a crashing end as National Guard troops fired on a gathering of students at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students, immortalized in Neil Young's angry ballad, "Ohio," were killed. 9 others were injured. The 67 rounds fired during that 13-second fusillade have echoed through the years.

It's hard to find a dispassionate view of the shootings, at least on the Internet. The victims are often portrayed as happy and innocent young college kids, cut down in the prime of their lives. The guardsmen, in green uniforms, battle helmets, lethal rifles and goggle-eyed gas masks are literally the faceless agents of a repressive government.

But the reality is more complex, as realities tend to be

3 days before the shootings, a drunken riot broke out in downtown Kent, as students and others lit fires and threw bottles at police. On May 2, someone, possibly students, set fire to the ROTC building on campus. Hundreds of students watched the building burn. Some slashed a fire hose. Others hurled rocks at the firefighters battling the flames. On May 3, student demonstration were broken up with tear gas and bayonets. By the time May 4 arrived, the atmosphere was incredibly tense and confrontational.

On that day, students gathered again for a noon demonstration, which the Guard considered canceled. They were bent on dispersing what they saw as an illegal demonstration and began to push the students away from the meeting point. They pushed them around a building and into a parking lot. As rocks and debris were hurled at them, the Guard paused on an athletic field, knelt, and leveled their guns at the students. They then arose and doubled back the way they had come, followed at some distance by students. As the Guard crested a hill, several guardsmen suddenly and inexplicably turned and started firing. Amid a rising chorus of screams of anger and cries for ambulances, they regrouped and marched back to their starting point.

There are many who claim to have heard an order to fire, and an orderly wheeling of soldiers into firing position, suggesting concerted action on the part of the guardsmen. There are those who believe that when the guardsmen had paused on the athletic field, they conspired to open fire on the students. But photos, video and common sense tell another story. Perhaps only a single guardsman, reacting viscerally to something, perhaps a thrown object, panicked, turned and fired. Those near him, perhaps spooked and hampered by limited vision through their masks, did likewise. Students near and far were cut down. Some were instigators, like the young man flying a black flag of anarchy, the young woman throwing rocks, and the young man lifting his middle finger to the Guard. Others were truly innocents, just cutting across a parking lot on their way to class, or watching the drama unfold from afar. No one truly seemed to expect a spasm of violence.

The Guardsmen had been introduced onto a volatile campus by Ohio's governor, dead set on putting down a mob of out-of-control college kids. The Guardsmen, young men the same age as the students, were weekend warriors trying to avoid the draft. Barely trained in the arts of war, they were out of their depth with the subtle tactics needed to control a crowd. Exhausted by several nights of strikebreaking, they were unnerved by 2 days of anarchical violence, insults and barrages of rocks. To them, the students may have seemed like class warfare, between privileged snobs, looking down through their hippy hairstyles and clean-cut sons of the working class. The guardsmen, whatever their mindset, had but three tools at their disposal: retreat, which was unthinkable; tear gas, which was ineffective in the windy May air; and their M1 rifles.

There is a great deal of good to say about America after Kent. For one thing, except for handful of violent episodes at colleges in May 1970, there have not been other similar tragedies since Kent. It seems that protesters, police, guardsmen and politicians took a long hard look at what happened, and took steps to prevent similar tragedies. Police now rarely act as agents of state policy. Guardsmen are better known for building levees, evacuating flood victims and serving their country overseas. Student protesters tend to be well-trained and practice non-violent techniques such as blocking access to buildings. The days of taking over the president's office and throwing rocks seem to be over.

The polarized atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s allowed for no middle ground between opposing viewpoints. You either had to be for the war or against it. For the students or for the guardsmen. But after 43 years, I would like to think that we would prefer a complex and ugly truth to a simplistic morality play in which good students were massacred by evil soldiers. Or in which America's citizen soldiers were provoked to shooting by godless, long-haired, foul-mouthed agents of a foreign power.

I do worry that our own time has become as polarized as that of the 1970s. A recent study shows that nearly half of a sampling of Republicans believes that armed revolution against the government might be needed to secure our liberties. Oh, the irony that the paranoia of the 1970s left has become that of the 2010s right! I can only hope that when push comes to shove, the lessons of May 4, 1970 will prevail. And that the next Kent State will not turn toward massacre, but be disarmed, disbanded and contained by forces that represent an honest attempt to cool tempers, soothe animosities, and calm the roiling waters of discord.