Will we ever learn from Kent deaths?

Mansfield, Ohio, News-Journal

Published April 29, 2007

I am a graduate of Kent State University. I am proud of my alma mater. Over the years, I've recommended it very highly to a number of promising young high school journalists. I tell them about the great campus, the diverse student body, the dedicated professors. I tell them what a cool little city Kent is. I tell them where to find pizza and a place to shop.

And if they ask, I tell them about May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of students, killing four and injuring nine.

When I was younger, people asked more often.

The first time, it caught me off guard. As a college junior, I had a summer job at the paper in Marion, Ind. A reporter took me to meet the county commissioners -- three red-cheeked, beefy good old boys who greeted me very kindly and asked where I went to school. They expected to hear "Northwestern." I proudly answered "Kent State."

Their faces went blank. "They still shootin' people?" one asked.

I don't remember what I answered -- nor how many times I've heard that question since. Some people phrase it more politely. Some sincerely want to know why that name seems familiar.

Lately, I've seen news reports likening May 4 to Virginia Tech's current situation. That bothers me.

True, both schools must cope with tragedy and infamy.

I don't see many similarities beyond that.

What happened in Virginia was the terrible deed of a single, insane man.

What happened in Kent was infinitely more complicated. The people on campus that day all behaved rationally. Their decisions were sane -- though in some cases unwise and in others, criminally stupid.

For years afterward, there was no healing, only blame and hatred.

I know. I was there.

I wasn't on campus that day -- I'm not that old. But I wasn't far away, either. Growing up in Portage County, I was what students might call a townie.

The things going on in Kent that spring had scared the daylights out of people who lived nearby. People like my parents saw thousands of angry young strangers with long hair, bizarre clothes and no respect for the law. They saw downtown Kent being vandalized, a building on campus burning. They blamed the students. Later, there would be talk of outside agitators and misinformation. But that was later.

That spring, the National Guard arrived on campus, which was supposed to make things better but somehow made everything worse. Every vague apprehension was suddenly justified: Of course the students were dangerous. Why else would the governor send in the troops? Why else would they shoot?

Tragic as that day was, it brought an end to the chaos -- or so it seemed.

When I enrolled at Kent 14 years later, I thought the shootings were all ancient history -- something that happened a lifetime ago. I was wrong.

As a student, I found my sympathies were suddenly far more in line with the innocents who ended up in the line of fire that spring day. Watching other people behave badly is a favorite campus pastime, not a capital offense. The protesters who threw rocks at the Guard that day deserved to be punished, sure -- but not shot. It was unfathomable.

At the beginning of my junior year, I was assigned to be student political activities reporter for the campus paper, The Daily Kent Stater. My new beat included the May 4 Task Force, a group dedicated to preserving the memory and lessons of that day.

At the time, that primarily meant getting a memorial built -- a design had been selected just that spring. The process proved suprisingly painful.

I think the problem was that no one could agree on what was being memorialized. Over the next two years, I talked to many people -- to campus and city officials; to people who saw the shootings, including one who was shot; to current students; to alumni. And I talked again to my parents and people like them, who felt pretty strongly that history was overlooking their side of the story.

It became apparent to me that though I was talking to all of these people, they weren't talking to each other. At very least, most of them weren't listening to each other.

People were still angry, still looking for someone to blame. After 15 years, Kent was still bleeding.

It was still "us" and "them."

In my mind, that's how the shootings happened in the first place. Officials allowed a polarized situation to escalate out of control. Instead of breaking down walls, they put up barricades. The two sides ceased to see each other as human beings. In such an environment, expect the worst.

I've seen society make the same stupid mistake countless times since. Every time, part of me cries again for those four dead students, because the only good that could have possibly come out of their senseless deaths would have been if maybe we learned something.

When I hear the Kent and Virginia Tech tragedies lumped together, I fear we're losing sight of the lessons of May 4 altogether. The Kent State tragedy wasn't a random act of violence: Our system failed us.

It scares me to think we could forget that.

Listen: We are all human. There is a single "us" and no "them." Do not listen to the world's ruthless ax grinders, with their diatribes of fear and hatred. They lie, and they do the work of The Liar, even though some of them speak in the name of God -- or Allah. But even the worst of us is still "us." The trick is finding a way to remind ourselves of that. People can make thatvery difficult.

I learned such things at Kent State. I learned from people like then-university President Michael Schwartz and memorial designer Bruno Ast, from some great professors and my fellow students.

I am proud of my alma mater. But I can't escape the feeling that with my diploma came a certain responsibility to remember, and to share what I learned.

It is, after all, important to all of us.