It was the death of innocence. It was the flashpoint for radicalization of the young. It was the chasm between generations. It was the beginning of the end of the Woodstock generation’s peace, love and tie-dye hedonism. It was the moment when the act of protest devolved from collegiate cool to murderous madness. It exposed the naivete of the ivory tower and the utter pointlessness of the morass in Vietnam. It planted the seeds of the destruction of Richard Nixon’s presidency. It symbolized the ultimate crisis of the American Century, the war within the culture itself.
We called it, simply, Kent State.
May 4, 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University in a hail of gunfire from National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration, nine others badly injured.
A month from our high school graduation day, all college-bound, we seniors at Merion Mercy Academy outside of Philadelphia felt stunned and confused; our history teacher Mrs. Jordan burst into tears that day and said she could not teach class. We were a largely conservative group — our lone class radical was heading to Penn, but most of us were bent on more conventional Catholic colleges like Villanova or Trinity. Suddenly, we were uncertain, afraid and angry. The war had come home, bullets flying on a college campus, teenagers barely out of childhood lying dead on the ground at the hands of our own soldiers.
I went home that day to find my parents debating whether to allow me to go away to college, a place that suddenly seemed so dangerous. A glimmer of doubt shot through my own political consciousness. I can even admit now, with some irony, that I had taken the Nixon role in our school mock debates the previous year — but on the weekend after that fateful day I did the previously unthinkable, the edgy, the teenage declaration of independence — I actually signed a petition against the war. By the fall, after arriving at Trinity, my classmates and I felt increasingly drawn toward the urgent protests to stop the war.
Hard to believe 40 years have gone by. Impossible to think that we are nearly three times as old now as we were back then. Heck, most of us are now older than our parents were back then, back in the days when we didn’t trust people over 30…
Unlike the rest of us, the four students who died on a parking lot at Kent State on May 4, 1970, never got to enjoy the multiplication of their decades. They are, forever, kids cut down at ages 19 and 20: Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer. We remember them today and wonder about the meaning of “Kent State” four decades later. Young Americans still fight in strange, distant lands, waging asymmetrical wars for uncertain causes against mysterious foes. But what’s different today is that the protests are few, the marches are modest, the campuses are quiet. Some say it’s the lack of a draft; I wonder about that.
Contemporary life is consumed with concerns of national security, the random terrorist in Times Square, the guy with exploding underwear on the plane, the local thug with too many guns and too much anger. To assuage our national paranoia about exploding buildings we spend too much time watching amateur singers or professional swingers (wielding golf clubs or cell phones, no matter, it’s all a diversion). Modern life is harried, fragmented, politicized and yet remarkably content-free at times.
Who among us, today, would deliberately stand our ground on that hill, staring down the troops with bayonet-tipped guns?
Who among us still cares enough about peace and justice to raise our voices, let alone risk our lives, against the horror of war?
Does any legacy remain of the great human sacrifice at Kent State?