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1970-2007
Kent State, Still

Not the kind of early retirement they deserved

When a nation perpetrates large-scale violence abroad and calls it peace-making, as the United States has since Vietnam, it shouldn’t be surprised when violence goes full circle and explodes at home, where it was at least partially seeded. This reasoning doesn’t apply only to 9/11 or the next attack, which is a matter of time.

Thirty-seven years ago last Friday, Ohio National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University pointed their bayonetted M-1 rifles at anti-war protesters and fired, killing four students: Allison Krause, 19; Sandy Lee Scheuer, 20; Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20; and Bill Schroeder, 19. Eight others were wounded. The Guard claimed they’d heard a sniper shot. They were under orders to return fire. The Ohio Guard’s commander found “no evidence” of sniper fire the day after the killings. Alan Canfora was shot in the wrist that day. Last week, he produced a recording of the shooting that he claims pins blame on the Guard as one or more voices are heard saying, “Right here!” “Get Set!” “Point!” and “Fire!” The 13-second volley of gunfire follows.

The recording proves less than Canfora claims. But whether it proves that the Guard was ordered to fire is irrelevant. The original crime was sending the Guard, armed and bayonetted, on a university campus to start with — even a campus where, three days before, the ROTC building was burned to the ground. The original crime was, as James Michener wrote in his book on the killings, “the obvious obsession with property values as opposed to human life,” an obsession that threads through American history since well before the Constitution enshrined it as an inalienable right. Western standards of living being measured primarily by the accumulation and preservation of property, it’s property value, in the end, that’s being fought for in Iraq (if it was democracy and human rights, we’d also be in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Saudi Arabia and in almost every country within a thousand-mile radius of the Persian Gulf).

The sacredness of property isn’t a crazy idea. John Locke believed (and the Founders agreed) that one’s property is an extension of oneself hardly different from one’s limbs: If you worked hard enough for your house, losing it is like losing a limb. But all property isn’t created equal, least of all when life is subordinated to it, as it was at Kent State. Students there had been protesting Richard Nixon’s broken promise of de-escalating the Vietnam War. He had just announced invasion plans into Cambodia and the resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam. That was the real, murderous violence. By destroying the ROTC building on campus (at night, when it was certifiably empty) students, many of whom were being drafted, gave action to anger. The public building most symbolic of the military devouring theirs and others’ lives was burned. The act immediately paled compared to the Guard’s fire.

And yet even that wasn’t the end of the worst of it. The most startling aspect of the Kent State killings is the enormous outpouring of hatred for the students that followed, filling the local paper’s letters page day after day. “Hooray!,” one housewife wrote. “I shout for God and country, recourse to justice under law, fifes, drums, martial music, parades, ice cream cones — America, support it or leave it.” An attorney — an attorney! — wrote, “If the troublemaking students have no better sense than to conduct themselves as they do on our university and college campuses … they justly deserve the consequences that they bring upon themselves, even if this does unfortunately result in death.” Letters supported a vigilante movement to fight students. Letters called them “creeps,” “mobs of dissidents,” “so-called educated punks.”

Memorials, like last week’s at Kent State, don’t reflect those hatreds. If only the solemnity of memorials inspired policy. But they don’t. The atmosphere of the moment does, and in the moment, even Nixon had called the Kent State students “bums,” while Spiro Agnew, his vice president, had had the stupidity to call the killings “predictable.” How familiar it all sounds in a country where dissent is ceremoniously ennobled when there’s nothing to dissent about and loathed, repressed, and sometimes shot, when there is, all in the name of that “love it or leave it” ideal that belittles Camus’ maxim: “I should like to be able to love my country and love justice, also.” As one student wrote in the Kent State paper, a rare voice of reason amidst the din of hatred, “You people with the ‘mow ‘em down’ philosophy, can you love God without loving Jeffrey, Bill, Sandy and Allison?”

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