Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Kent State and May 4

Growing up in Kent, the events of May 4, 1970 are never far from most people's minds here. If you're not familiar with those events, they are commonly referred to as the Kent State shootings or Kent State Massacre. Basically, 13 students were shot by members of the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970. 4 of those students died. Anyone who was around at that time or has been here long enough to know the story has an opinion, usually strong, about what happened and why and who is to blame. I'd say we have quite a few of the extremes here. On the far right you have those who believed the National Guard was not only completely justified in firing but "should've killed em [students/protesters] all." On the far left you have those who firmly believe the shootings were very deliberate and planned by the Government to suppress opposition to the Vietnam War. Every May 4, particularly years like this where it's an anniversary ending in 0 or 5 (this year was the 40th anniversary), the debate continues in force. It's hardly absent during the rest of the year, but it especially visible around this time of year. 2010 was no different.

Being raised in Kent I've heard quite a few stories from many different angles. Both sides of my family were living in Kent at the time, so they remember it from the townspeople perspective. Many of my teachers in the Kent Schools were students at Kent State at the time, so I've heard their perspective as well. On top of that I've read many of the published accounts and have heard a number of speakers including Alan Canfora, one of the students who was shot. He is the director of the new May 4 Visitors Center on campus and has made a living not just lecturing on the shootings, but making sure they don't become simply an historical event. He is largely responsible for keeping them in the headlines even 40 years later.

Personally, from my ideological perspective and from my study of history I think the reality of what and why is somewhere in between the two extremes, which is of course true for most issues that have very different views: the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. For the Kent State shootings I definitely feel a ton of mistakes were made on all sides and that the end result was from a "perfect storm" of mistakes and instances where emotion trumped logic. In the end, I don't think anyone deserved to die as a result, but at the same time I also don't think the deaths were purely intentional or desired on the part of the local, state, and federal governments or the National Guard. I don't buy the government conspiracy theory because I have not seen or heard any valid motive for the government to kill college students. Even the 9/11 conspiracy theorists have a plausible motive for the conspiracy (an excuse to go to war), even though I think it's out in left field. I have yet to hear what the motive for shooting 13 college students at a virtually unknown college campus was. If it was a conspiracy, it was a pretty horrible and lame one. If the alleged motive for the shootings was suppressing dissent, why stop at 13 with 4 dead at one college campus? Why go after college students and not specifically target Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or the Black Panthers? The same could be said for simply inciting fear to bring people in line. Had the shootings been one of a wide range of similar incidents, that would've been one thing, but it was for the most part isolated. Historically, it appears much more as a result of the incredibly high emotions running in the late 1960s than any coordinated government conspiracy to eliminate or damage dissent or the radical groups operating at the time like SDS. In order for a conspiracy theory to even get off the ground, it needs a valid motive. As of now, the Kent State shootings doesn't fit the possible motives I can think of very well at all.

I certainly do not have a problem with commemorating the events on a yearly basis as a memorial. The families of those killed are still around and still live with that loss. I know the sister of one of the victims and I know from my own experience with the loss of a loved one that missing someone never truly goes away even if we get used to them being gone. That said, what bothers me about May 4 is too often it becomes much more of a political rally with a specific left-wing agenda and far less a memorial service, which is why I tend to avoid campus on May 4. I feel the real lessons of May 4 are the dangers of letting emotion overrule logic and fairness. If the students and protesters had shown some restraint in their anger leading up the shootings, the Guard--who were the same ages as the students and already fatigued from addressing a violent strike just before this--would've never been called to Kent in the first place. Even immediately after the shootings, some students/protesters were so enraged they were ready to rush the Guard. Thanks to the pleadings of some professors, this was prevented otherwise many more would've likely been injured or killed and the Guard would've clearly been justified in firing out of self defense.

We still cannot say for certain WHY the Guard fired. A recording was recently released which experts claim has orders for the Guard to prepare to fire. There is no audible order to fire prior to the Guard actually firing and the recording opens more questions to me than it answers. Not only are the "orders" in a non-military standard form (the Guard uses military orders) and the recording does not let us know who is saying them, but there are other gunshots heard that are clearly not the gunshots of the rifles used by the Guard, though they could be gunshots from pistols Guard members were known to have. But hearing from Alan Canfora, you'd believe we have solved the "mystery" of why and can now fully apply the conspiracy label to the shootings. No Guard members present that day have ever stated there was an order to fire. Call it what you want, but after 40 years I hardly think any of them are simply saying that to protect anyone anymore. The commanders are all most likely dead by now and Guard members were already cleared of any charges at the Federal and Civil trials. But even then, he wants to open a new investigation to find out who gave these "orders". I'm not opposed to finding the truth, but I have a hard time believing a recording that audio experts could barely discern the "orders" from will help us know who said them. I mean, really, unless some secret memo is uncovered from James Rhodes or other government official telling the Guard to go in and kill students, there will ALWAYS be questions about conspiracy, motive, and just an emotion-driven accident.

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