Tin Soldiers

Forty years ago today, Ohio National Guardmen fired on student protesters on the campus of Kent State University.  It was a massacre.  Four students were killed and nine were injured.

Looking back on that appalling day with the perspective that comes from the passing decades, it is almost impossible to believe that the shootings occurred.  The ’60s were a time of constant protests, riots, and frequent instances of civil disorder, yet even in the tumultuous context of that decade Kent State was an enormous shock.  How did our culture become so polarized that anyone — be it a politician, the commander of a military unit, or an individual National Guardsman — could think it was appropriate to shoot down unarmed students?  Yet they did.

My perspective on the shooting also has changed as I have aged.  As the parent of one college student and one very recent graduate, I wonder how I would react if I had been the father of one of the four.  Colleges are supposed to be places of growth and learning, not death and horror.  I cannot imagine the disbelief, the anguish, and the revulsion that the parents must have felt upon receiving the news that their child was dead, gunned down by soldiers on a bucolic campus on a spring day.

In the late ’70s I was a columnist for The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper.  On May 11, 1979, I wrote a column on the Kent State shootings.  Yesterday I fished it out of the filing cabinet and reread it for the first time in years.  It is a bit over the top, maudlin and overdone, and written with a callow certainty, but it captured some of what I felt then and still feel now:

Student political apathy forged by Kent State deaths

Last Friday was the ninth anniversary of the Kent State shooting — the nightmarish massacre of four college students at the hands, and gun barrels, of the Ohio National Guard.

But it seemed as if Ohio State students had forgotten.  Or did they simply choose not to remember?

Unlike past years, there were no massive protests, no rallies, no marches.  The painful memory of the wretched deaths had been tucked away into a cobwebbed corner of the OSU student consciousness, and no one seemed eager to haul it out again.

Certainly, Kent State is not a pleasant or comfortable thing to ponder.  The images its memory evokes are harsh and bitter — images of blood and splintered bone, of bullet tearing into yielding flesh, of screams and confusion and terror and, ultimately, death.

It is easier to put such horrors out of the mind and contemplate disco, TGs, and which bar to patronize Saturday night.

Indeed, in these quiet, apathetic days where the Oval is used as a playground for frisbee-throwing and suntanning instead of as a rallying point for activist student politics, the specter of Kent State seems very far away.

It is hard to imagine a wave of national guardsmen charging across the campus with fixed bayonets, just as it is difficult to imagine today’s students caring about injustice or political issues.

But in a very real sense, the attitudes of today’s generation of students were forged by the crackling hail of gunfire that rang through the Kent State campus on May 4, 1970.

The Kent State shootings, and the shootings at Jackson State which occurred soon afterward, were the last gasps of the dying concept of student activism.

In the years that followed, the excesses of death scared students away from confrontation politics and into the present state of political catatonia that characterizes the OSU student body.

Student life is a tattered collage of polyester clothes, sorority formals and midterms in Econ 200.  The efforts of those who are consciously trying to effect change are ridiculed by students starting into a half-empty mug of beer.

The death of four Kent State students should have radicalized students and alerted them to the dangers of runaway political power exhibited by people like Richard Nixon and Jim Rhodes.  Instead it had the opposite effect.

Ironically, Jim Rhodes holds the same office he did in 1970 when he ordered the Ohio National Guard onto the Kent State campus.

It seems the four students who died at Kent State died in vain.

Appropriately, it was an older man who stood in the middle of the Oval last Friday, braving a grey downpour to encourage students to sign a petition memorializing Kent State.

There were few signatures on the posterboard that served as a petition, and the man was unsuccessful in recruiting more.

Pellets of rain spattered against the few names written boldly in blue ink on the cardboard.  The ink bled across the petition like aqua tears.

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