Horror and Perspective

English: Honors College Complex at Kent State

English: Honors College Complex at Kent State (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today we mark an ugly blot on our nation’s history. It was forty-three years ago on this date that National Guardsmen open fired on protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. When the shooting was over four people were dead, and our country, as a whole not just within the counter-culture, began to question our military involvement in South East Asia. In the new-found age of fast mass media it was the first time many Americans had ever seen authorities gun down defenseless targets (and please do not make me berate you for an idiot by going on about the students throwing rocks.)

It was terrifying, disgusting, and heartbreaking. Americans were faced with abuse of authority at its most basic level, something they had convinced themselves could never happen here. It flew in the face of what we thought of ourselves as a people. Some, of course, thought it was a good thing. There have always been reactionaries that hate any change and the generation that brings it. We see echoes of this in the treatment of Occupy protesters and squatters that reclaim abandoned property for the people. Still, most folks balked at this. It was one of the factors that eventually led to an end of our presence in Vietnam. People, by and large, no longer took our “leaders” word on its face. Why should they when they had seen how ugly this face could be?

It marked for middle class, white Americans, the end of innocence. It turned us around and turned us over. For a moment it made us look in the mirror. Only a brief one though. Too many Americans were still woefully unaware or uncaring of our nation’s history of violence against the weak. Dee Brown’s efforts aside, most did not care about the Massacre at Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears, or the litany of other crimes against this land’s original inhabitants. Most did not remember the fate of the Bonus Army, men who had served our country and their families, marching and camping to protest for the payment they were due. Many today still forget the legacy of violence against labor organizers: the massacres, frame jobs, and casual murder committed against those fighting for their fair share. Finally, cameras seldom capture the brutality inflicted upon PoC, particularly MoC, by men in blue.

No, Kent State’s victims may have been the first example of the “good victim” mentality in our country. These were middle and upper middle class white kids being gunned down, not the rabble of union workers and certainly not the ever-criminalized black man. For the first time white people realized they could be the victims of state violence too, and it scared them. It didn’t scare them enough to empathize with young men in Oakland, or at Pine Ridge, or even half a world away on the Mekong peninsula. It did teach them a hard lesson though, one they have only half absorbed in the last forty-three years, and one many took all the wrong messages from. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another forty-three to figure it out.

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