04 May 2010


On May 4, 1970, during the height of public protest over US involvement in the Vietnam War, a group of students gathered at Kent State University in Ohio to protest President Richard Nixon's recent escalation of the war by invading Cambodia. Members of the Ohio National Guard were sent by Governor James A. Rhodes to control the demonstration.

The gathering was the most recent in a series of protests, both at Kent State and nationwide. According to Rhodes, the protestors were un-American revolutionaries bent on destroying higher education in Ohio. He angrily compared them to brown shirts and communists.

Shortly after noon, a contingent of 77 National Guardsmen, wearing gas masks and with bayonets fixed to their rifles, advanced on a portion of the protest group. At first the students retreated and the Guardsmen followed. Then the Guardsmen halted, conferring in apparent indecision, and retraced their steps to the top of a rise, where they abruptly turned to face the students. 29 Guardsmen aimed their rifles and fired into the gathering of unarmed protesters, unleashing 67 rounds in 13 seconds. Four students were killed, and an additional nine were wounded. Here is a series of slides portraying that day's events in graphic detail. (Note: digital analysis of a sound recording from that day clarifies the unison of the guardsmen's halting, turning and firing -- they were responding to a command, presumably from an officer. This alters the event from firing in panic, to ordering premeditated murder.)

The Kent State killings provoked national outrage and mourning. A strike by 4 million students closed hundreds of universities, colleges and high schools nationwide, and public opinion was further polarized against the war. Poems were written, speeches made, and songs composed -- probably the most famous was Neil Young's anthem "Ohio" -- heard here.

I recall vividly the moment when I heard the news. I was living in Houston, TX, rooming with a married couple and their children -- the couple and I were attending a computer programming school. I pulled into the driveway on my green 1963 Triumph Bonneville, and the man whom I'd regarded as my friend came striding outside to gloat over the student massacre, saying words to the effect that all those protestors should be shot. I was stunned, mortified. My first coherent thought was, "We're killing our children."

Ours has always been a country of diverse opinions and conflicting views. The hallmark of a true democracy is the ability to debate those views respectfully, relying on reason and evidence, rather than rage and invective. In no instance is military or police violence justified (except in legitimate self-defense), whether during an antiwar rally, an anti-abortion demonstration, or a march over immigration policy. I still mourn that day, and that passage in our nation's history, when we lost any claim to innocence or rational discourse.

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