What Really Happened at Kent State?

On a car trip to San Francisco in the summer of 1970 I quickly learned that writing 'Kent, Ohio' in motel guest registers got me an immediate interrogation from clerks: "Tell me -- what really happened at Kent State?"

On a car trip to San Francisco in the summer of 1970 I quickly learned that writing 'Kent, Ohio' in motel guest registers got me an immediate interrogation from clerks: "Tell me -- what really happened at Kent State?"

It seemed pretty plain to me that what really happened was that professional soldiers had fired rifles into a crowd of unorganized, unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others. Yet the clerks would interrupt me: No, they would say uneasily, what really happened was that the those dirty scumbag students were criminals (or Communists) and the soldiers were forced to shoot them: "They deserved it."

The clerks seemed more anxious to be reassured ("I talked to this woman from Kent and she said ...") and comforted about an event that troubled them deeply than to learn "what really happened".

All of us were bewildered in 1970. The Vietnam war had divided our young men into those who were drafted and sent to Vietnam and those who sought refuge in college or the National Guard. It had distracted us from seeing how our political leaders were betraying us with imperial decisions. Our embedded culture of racism and sexism had been challenged by the civil rights, abortion rights and women's rights movements; the 'flower children' with their new styles of clothing, hair, music, language and sexuality had unbalanced our comfortable, unexamined social values.

We were poorly prepared to deal with the tragedy of Kent State. It was unthinkable that our sons, cousins, and brothers in the National Guard could have shot into a crowd of students who were also our children, cousins, brothers, sisters. It was so clearly wrong that something had to be done to relieve us of the obligation to think about it or do anything about it. The easy way out was to change the story about what really happened to prove that those killed had been evil or worthless, beyond redemption or education, beyond the reach of human sympathy. But that was difficult: they weren't poor or black, they didn't speak another language or practice outlandish religions.

In 1970 many of us also believed that as a democratic society with advanced technologies in a nation of laws we would eventually find out "what really happened", agree on basic story about May 4 -- its antecedents and consequents, its players and their responsibilities -- and the issue would be resolved.

Yet a generation has passed and the issue is not resolved. It cannot be resolved because the "what happened" question doesn't go to the heart of the matter. The question we need answered, the one the motel clerks wanted answered in 1970, is: "Do we kill and hurt people for their beliefs, for their badness?" It is the whole question of war.

Kent State students had posed that question in the days before May 4, about the Vietnam war and the attack on Cambodia. The Nixon administration had replied swiftly, directly, affirmatively. The students protested a war, and our leaders made war on their protest.

This May 4 many survivors of 1970 joined the Portage County Peace Coalition in again raising the question of war in an anti-war march from the Kent State campus to downtown Kent. The majority of the heads were gray, though there were many students, young families with strollers, and some bicyclists; the signs were small and mostly hand-lettered, pleading for an end to the war in Iraq and imperialism in the world, remembering Americans killed in Iraq, protesting torture and attacks on innocent people, calling for the repeal of the Patriot Act. Careful negotiations with local officials had removed the threat of police in riot gear and armed helicopters (present last year). The procession drew a few taunts of "Traitors, why don't you leave", and a few appeals to "Just get over it, they got what they deserved"", while a band of born-again Christians under a huge banner of bloody Jesus asked where we expected to spend eternity.

In "The Drowned and the Saved"(1986) Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi reminds us of "what really happened" in the Holocaust: " ... incredibly, it happened that an entire civilized people ... followed a buffoon ... Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises sung right up to the catastrophe. It happened, and therefore it can happen again ... precusrory signs loom before us. Violence, "useful" or "useless" is there before our eyes: it snakes either through sporadic and private episodes, or government lawlessness ... It only awaits its new buffoon (there is no dearth of candidates) to organize it, legalize it, declare it necessary and mandatory, and so contaminate the world. Few countries can be considered immune to a future tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties, religious or political fanaticism, and racial attritions. It is therefore necessary to sharpen our senses, distrust the prophets, the enchanters ..."

... and continue to ask the question of war: Do we answer threats and protests with war and violence? Do we obey and praise a president who is 'disgusted' by torture, but not repentant or ashamed that it was done at his behest in a war he started? Do we let violence become organized, legalized, necessary and mandatory?

Do we kill and hurt people for their beliefs, for their badness?

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