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Why Kent State is important today

Posted in the database on Thursday, May 04th, 2006 @ 17:52:47 MST (1560 views)
by Michael Corcoran    The Boston Globe  

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Thirty six years ago today, Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 college students at Kent State University who were protesting US incursions into Cambodia as part of the Vietnam War. Nine victims survived, including one who is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Four students -- Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, and Sandy Scheuer -- were killed.

The students were unarmed, and the closest was more than 60 feet away from the Guard at the time of the shooting. There was no warning shot; the National Guard never issued an apology; and no one ever spent a day in jail for the killings despite the fact that the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, appointed by President Nixon in 1970, found the shootings to be ''unwarranted and inexcusable."

Yearly, since the tragedy, Kent State students, alumni, and others have met on the anniversary of the shooting to reflect and remember. Alan Canfora, who was shot by the Guard, says, ''The students today act as the conscience of the college, and the country . . . just like the students did in 1970."

This year's memorial will come, as the last three have, in the midst of a war that has become increasingly divisive. While the memory of Kent State and other violent clashes from that time between protesters and authorities did not deter the incumbent president from leading the country into another unpopular war, it is important to honor Kent State's spirit of dissent and what it taught about the bloody consequences of intense division.

Halfway across the country, the lessons of Kent State are taught each semester in debate classes at Emerson College. J. Gregory Payne, associate professor of organizational and political communication and a Kent State historian, has been teaching students about history, advocacy, and rhetoric through the lens of Kent State for decades.

According to Payne, remembering this tragedy is important because ''Kent State is not about the past -- it's about the future."

Consider the similarities: In 1970, just as today, we had an unpopular president carrying out an unpopular war for questionable reasons.

Richard Nixon and George W. Bush embody many of the same divisive characteristics. Bush tells the world: ''You are with us or you are with the terrorists." Nixon's public statement after the shootings blamed the students: ''When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy."

Again our civil liberties are being threatened. Bush has ordered the wiretapping of US citizens without a warrant and holds detainees indefinitely without trial; Nixon was spying on student activists and what he called ''domestic radicals."

But, perhaps the most telling comparison is the sharp division within the nation, both then and now. Americans are now, as we were then, split to the core on matters of war and peace, life and death, and cultural values. The President's Commission concluded it was ''the most divisive time in American history since the civil war." Bill Schroeder's parents received signed letters after the shooting saying, among other things, that their ''riot-making, communist son" deserved to die.

Today antiwar protesters are unfairly discredited by the administration as they were in 1970. When Cindy Sheehan took antiwar positions after her 24-year-old son, Casey Sheehan, died in Iraq, she was smeared by pundits like Bill O'Reilly, who said she was a pawn of ''far-left elements that are using her" and that Sheehan was ''dumb" enough to let them do it.

Of course, the absence of a draft now and its presence then may explain why the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War had a greater intensity then it does now. Still, as the protests in New York City last week indicate, the longer the war in Iraq drags on, the more vehement the opposition seems to get.

Musicians, once again, are singing songs of dissent. Last Friday Neil Young, who in 1970 wrote ''Ohio" in reaction to the shootings, began streaming a new antiwar album ''Living with War" for free on his website. Days later, Pearl Jam also released an album made up entirely of protest music.

My generation can't ignore the lessons of Kent State. The same mindset and failure in leadership that led National Guardsmen to fire at students of the same age and from the same Ohio hometowns is similar to what led US soldiers to torture detainees in Iraq.

Kent State should remind us of what happens when a grossly misguided war divides a country. If we can speak candidly and openly about our history and our present -- even the worst elements of it -- then we can ensure that the lives lost on May 4, 1970, were not in vain.

Michael Corcoran is a journalism major at Emerson College.

___________________________

Published on Thursday, May 4, 2006 by CommonDreams.org

4 Dead in Ohio, 2,000+ Dead in Iraq: Can America do the Math?

by Henry Marchand

On May 4, 1970, four students at Ohio’s Kent State University were shot dead by Ohio National Guardsmen, sent to their campus by Governor James Rhodes. The campus ROTC building had been burned, and the phrase “outside agitators” was being invoked to explain the eruption of a quiet Midwestern university into a center of anti-war outrage. The shootings became, of course, a defining event of the Vietnam War era. The United States was waging an unnecessary war and had turned its people upon each other with fatal results. Many in Kent and around the nation were appalled by the shootings; many others were grimly pleased, their attitude captured in Neil Young’s “Ohio” lyrics: “Shoulda been done long ago.” It was a low point in our national history.

We’re surely at another low point now. Mired in another unnecessary war, we’ve lost well over 2,000 of our country’s men and women (most very young, like those four dead in Ohio and the 57,000 killed in the Vietnam war) to bombs and bullets and assorted mayhem that never had to happen. This time, though, we can’t seem to rouse ourselves in sufficient numbers to shame our national government to end the war. It may be that our Republican-controlled Congress is simply not capable of shame, that our Senators and erstwhile Representatives are so besotted with Cheney-like arrogance that they’re immune to conscience. But the fact is, we haven’t really tested them as we should. The campuses and streets of the nation should be regularly filled with angry, shouting citizens, but they’re not. While we’ve thankfully not seen National Guardsmen shooting college students protesting the Cheney/Bush war on Iraq (which may have already begun to expand covertly into Iran, as the Vietnam war expanded into Laos and Cambodia), we have seen other horrors: government officials declaring that criticism of their actions is disloyalty to the nation; secret wiretapping of citizens; an unprecedented power grab by the Executive branch, which has proclaimed itself above at least 257 of our laws, according to a recent estimate (thank you, Patrick Leahy, et al). Why, then, are we on our asses and not on the streets? Why is Congress not besieged by Americans demanding that they rein in the White House?

Maybe it’s because nearly four decades separate us from the ghastly events at Kent State, and because it’s been more than thirty years since the end of our nation’s war in Vietnam. We’ve endured Watergate and Nicaragua, El Salvador and Iran-Contra, a dispiriting succession of scandals and alliances with dictators and killers lightened only occasionally by a peace deal in the Middle East (which never lasts) or a period of relatively peaceful economic growth (unlikely to be repeated anytime soon). And more damagingly, we have lived through decades of a national dumbing down, most evident in the ongoing campaign to transform our public schools into virtual job training centers, rather than educational institutions. We’ve seen the triumph of the view that our children exist to be shaped for the needs of business, rather than to become informed, critically thinking, self-determining, and ethically conscious adults – the very citizens a democracy needs to survive. We’ve seen the potential for large scale domestic political revolt defused by the simple expedient of starving schools for funds and burying teachers and school administrators beneath a government bureaucracy that in effect mandates paralysis. Leave no child behind, but for the love of god don’t get them looking ahead. Teach to standardized tests. Color between the lines. To borrow a phrase from Ron Shelton’s “Bull Durham” screenplay, “Don’t think, kid. It’ll only hurt the ballclub.”

A population that is not educated is easily led. Read Frederick Douglass about learning to read, or Malcolm X. Read Ernest J. Gaines’ short story, “The Sky is Gray,” or his novel, “A Lesson Before Dying.” Withholding real education is the surest way to keep people down, to neuter opposition and mute dissent, to keep a foot on their necks. There’s a very real connection between what happens in our schools and what happens in our government: if we train our children for nothing more than lives of service to the very interests that benefit from unnecessary wars and partnerships with dictators, what can we expect of the future but more of the same?

What happened at Kent State thirty-six years ago was a terrible demonstration of the truth George Washington saw when he considered an American future in which the interests of government and business leaders were identical: the lives and freedoms of the people would be devalued, and the survival of democracy imperiled. Shooting students, or depriving them of real education in favor of standardization and job training, or sending them to foreign lands to needlessly kill and die, changes the American future for the worse.

We don’t need another May 4, 1970. But maybe the focus of our vocationally-inclined education czars on improving children’s math skills can be used against them, to make that date important in a new way. Maybe soon we’ll be able to see that if 4 dead young Americans on May 4 equals cause for outrage and reason to demand a change in national policy, more than 2,000 dead equals cause for even more. Maybe America will do the math at last, and all who recoil at the numbers will act to reclaim the future. We can start by voting out this woeful Congress in November. Then we can demand of their replacements that the Cheney/Bush wars be stopped and that our public schools at all levels get the funding and support they need to actually educate their students, to teach true American values like “government by the people,” the inherent worth of the individual, the rule of law, the right of dissent… All those things this nation should be about. All those things too many young Americans have died for in places like Vietnam, Ohio, and Iraq, while their nation’s leaders had, as Dick Cheney has said, “other priorities.”

Henry Marchand (hmarchan@cedarcrest.edu) is an Assistant Professor of English in the Humanities Department at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.



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