KENT, Ohio - The shooting deaths 38 years ago of four Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard need to be seen as a gift, 'a lesson' to the entire United States, a former United Nations weapons inspector said yesterday.
But if the May 4 commemoration continues to have low attendance (the event was attended by about 400 people) and Americans refuse to read and understand their U.S. Constitution, then those lost lives will have been for nothing, keynote speaker Scott Ritter said.
The retired Marine is a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and a critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. At one point in his career in the 1990s, he sounded alarms about possible hidden Iraqi weapons. He later said the U.S. government failed to make a case for going to war in Iraq.
Ritter, 46, said in his half-hour talk that he wanted to know why more people didn't turn out on Sunday afternoon.
"While I applaud those who are here today, I have to ask, why isn't this hillside covered with the citizens of this country?" Ritter asked. "Where are the students of Kent State? Where are the citizens of this community? Where are the citizens of Ohio? Where is the media?"
The program in which Ritter and others spoke started at noon on the campus commons, near the university's memorial and markers that show where four students were killed and nine wounded on May 4, 1970, as they protested the Vietnam War and presence of the National Guard on campus. William Schroeder, a native of Lorain, was among those killed.
While the event is based on the shootings 38 years ago, many of the attendees also were protesting the ongoing war in Iraq.
Ritter said whatever their feelings about the Iraq war, people should never denigrate the service provided by the Americans fighting there because they are willing to die for us.
"These are men and women who have taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic," he said.
"Have we done everything we can to ensure the sacrifice that they are prepared to make is in a cause worthy of the sacrifice?" Ritter said. "And I will tell you, no, we have not."
The rights of American freedom of speech and assembly were trampled 'on this very spot,' shortly after students buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution near where the memorial stands to protest their government's actions, Ritter said.
Those protesters were defending the Constitution, he said.
U.S. citizens need to read their Constitution, he said. "You cannot defend that which you do not understand."
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The students who were killed on May 4 gave the nation the gift of their lives, he said.
"What are we doing to honor this gift, if we cannot understand that their sacrifice screams out for a responsible citizenry, then we have shamed them, shamed them," Ritter said. "The gift that those who died on May 4, 1970, gave us, was the gift of self-introspection."
Ritter said most Americans no longer function as citizens.
"The problem is not the president. The problem is not the Congress. The problem is not the judiciary," he said. "The problem is we, the people of the United States of America. We aren't doing our job, therefore they aren't doing their job."
For next year's 39th commemoration, the hills and walls around the campus commons must be filled with people and the entire nation involved, Ritter said.
"Because otherwise, this event has no purpose other than to commemorate the deaths of four Americans," he said. "This isn't about the deaths of four Americans. This is about the death of a nation."
Katherine Pershey, 27, a Kent State graduate who is now pastor of a church in California, returned to the campus for the May 4 events with her husband, Ben, and their 3-month-old daughter, Juliette.
Pershey said she thought Ritter made a good point about the responsibility of U.S. citizens.
"I appreciate hearing that perspective," she said.
Rebecca Vujanov, 51, said she tries to make it to every May 4 commemoration.
She said Ritter didn't mince words.
"He cut right to the chase," she said. "I'm just saddened as a community member that more community members weren't here."
The weekend's events included a silent candlelight march on Saturday and a silent candlelight vigil in the Prentice Hall parking lot. Speakers at Sunday's program included Emily Kunstler, daughter of Bill Kunstler, a lawyer who represented the families of the May 4 victims, and Dean Kahler and Joe Lewis, former students who were shot and wounded.
© 2008 The Akron Beacon Journal