Every May the 4th, I can't help but to think back to a warm spring afternoon in 1970 when the Ohio National Guard suddenly and inexplicably gunned down 13 college kids at Kent State University, killing four.
What I find intriguing and disquieting are the parallels between that time and ours. In the 1970s, many young people felt that their government had slipped its moorings and was not being responsive to their voices. Perhaps because they felt personally threatened by the possibility of service in Vietnam, many of the young believed that President Nixon and his generation could not be trusted to represent their interests. The unexpected widening of the war by the president, who campaigned on a platform of ending it, seemed like an enormous betrayal -- one that might land young men in combat and into a body bag in a war they didn’t
believe in. Government leaders, like Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, assumed that campus protests were being organized by shadowy outsiders who were no better than the Klan or Nazi Brownshirts.
The level of distrust and paranoia on both sides, I believe, led directly to the sense of anger and betrayal felt by students, which fed to the panicky emotional state of the guardsmen, which cleared the way for the shootings.
Luckily for the country, Kent State was the worst of the relatively few violent clashes that occurred during that tumultuous period.
After the shooting , it's as though the country collectively drew back from the brink and rethought the way it wanted to deal with dissent. It was clear that the grownups had to take control from the reactionaries, and find less lethal means to deal with political protest. By and large, we have all benefited
from this downgrading of lethality.
What I worry about is how certain well-funded and highly organized elements of our society are anxious to ratchet up the divisions in our country and to make it more acceptable to use violence to solve political problems. In 1970, it was unthinkable that a major television network would foment insurrection and hatred of our legally elected leaders. That might have been true of underground papers on the fringe, but not of CBS, NBC or ABC. Today, an influential news outlet pumps fear-filled, insurrectionist and often false content into the minds of millions of Americans. Sean Hannity's recent espousal of the feeble-minded, racist, anti-government tirades
of Cliven Bundy are just the latest example of how the pot of paranoia and white entitlement is stirred by the media. Folks like Hannity , Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and like-minded others have reversed the social currents of the 1970s -- siding with the powerful and rich while denigrating "feminazis," the poor and non-whites.
They have inverted the counterculture's playbook, giving permission to encourage the majority's sense of entitlement by giving the go-ahead to express what until recently would have been interpreted as racism, jingoism, anti-feminism and pro-imperialist propaganda.
The anti-government forces of the 1970s could only have dreamed of this level of influence and power. The Hannity/Limbaugh/Beck demonizing of federal agents, minorities and women is far more polarizing than anything that the admittedly paranoid Left ever pulled off.
After May 4, 1970, the country began to back away from the lunacy of the paranoia and civil strife that nearly tore our nation apart. We began to find new ways to talk to each other and to institutionalize our new leanings -- that minorities, women and dissidents could find a voice in a democratic society. Cops stopped being "pigs" who protected the privileged, and became enablers for ordinary people to lawfully and safely express their views.
My prayer is that we do not have to experience another spasm like Kent State to bring us to our senses; that people of good will can curb their enthusiasm for those who want to turn us against one another -- whether for political advantage or just for ratings -- and learn to try to understand their neighbors who have divergent views.
The stakes are high. The next civil war will
not be between regions of the country, but will be fought house to house, between neighbors whose political views are informed by those with a political or economic interest in dividing us. We the people have an interest in heeding the lessons of Kent State and making sure that doesn’t happen.