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The 13 seconds that brought the war home

Sunday, May 01, 2005
Brian Albrecht
Plain Dealer Staff Writer

In the time it takes to read to the third sentence, four students were shot and killed at Kent State University, 35 years ago this May 4.

Thirteen seconds.

Ample time for 28 Ohio National Guardsmen to fire 67 shots into a crowd of students protesting the war in Vietnam, adding nine wounded to the toll.

Thirteen students, 13 seconds.

The time reference is also the title of a new book by Philip Caputo, a former Chicago Tribune reporter who arrived a day after the shootings to cover the tragedy.

"13 Seconds" offers no new smoking guns to the historic arsenal of facts. Instead, Caputo sketches events preceding, during and following that day through the interpretive eye of a former Vietnam veteran and eyewitness to America's tumultuous days of heated protest and sometimes violent response.

As Caputo notes in his sparse book, they were days of take-no-prisoner extremes on both sides of many political and social issues, but particularly regarding the war in Vietnam.

"The atmosphere in the country had grown toxic with hate," he writes. "America was ready for a tragedy, and on May 4, 1970, it got one."

All the old nightmares are reawakened in the book. The tragic bluster and blunders leading up to the shootings. The horror of bullets drilling into a young face, a back, torso and neck. The charges, counter-charges, legal wrangling, distortions, myths and rumored conspiracies that lingered for years afterward.

Yet when the author returned to Kent State University last fall, he found an entirely different mood on campus, the legacy of a bygone generation overshadowed by the passing of time, much like the university's May 4 memorial marker that stands shrouded by surrounding trees.

"In some ways it felt as if I was back more on the campuses of the early '60s or late '50s," Caputo says during a telephone interview. "There was none of that sense of an entire revolt by the younger generation against almost everything. There was none of that old anger."

There is one caveat. Caputo believes that under the right circumstances the same rage on both sides that triggered the potential for tragedy in 1970 could rise again.

“Oh sure. All you have to do is reinstitute the draft,” he says. “I think you’ll find college campuses won’t be quite so quiescent.”

Students differ now from their hell-no-we-won’t-go counterparts of 1970, but some aspects of Caputo’s first visit to that campus 35 years ago remain unchanged.

“I had, and still have, the fundamental attitude that the anti-war movement had gotten out of hand, and the response to it was out of control,” Caputo says.

He notes that one disquieting discovery in researching the book was public reaction to the shootings at the time, including letters to the mother of William Schroeder, one of the slain students, essentially saying that he’d gotten what he deserved.

He suspects that if another May 4 happened today, that response could be even more virulent, given the commonly perceived threat to national security (rightly or wrongly) linked to the war in Iraq.

“I have a feeling it would be looked upon beyond unpatriotic, almost treasonous,” the author says.

Caputo wrote that the perception of May 4 among many Americans vastly differed from the response following another infamous shooting of protesting civilians by soldiers. When British troops killed five men in the Boston Massacre of 1770, the victims were “hailed as heroes and martyrs to the cause of American liberty” and subsequent revolution.

Yet the author also believes May 4 represented an equally significant moment in history.

“I don’t think Kent State brought about as many changes as some people think, but I do think it was THE defining moment of the protests of the ’60s,” he says.

Few will find this 198-page book definitive. But Caputo hopes that readers come away with a sense of how unglued the country was becoming back then, and that the danger of a democracy becoming a very violent and repressive state is not as remote as we might think.

“Another thing we have to realize is that when our government does something, to one degree or another we are all responsible,” he adds.

And perhaps then, we won’t have to count 13 deadly seconds ever again.

Albrecht is a Plain Dealer reporter. To reach Brian Albrecht:

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