Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the May 4, 1970, shootings at Kent State University, in which 28 Ohio National Guardsmen fired M1 rifles at students who had been ordered to disperse but refused. Four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was permanently paralyzed. The shootings occurred after days of campus unrest, destruction of property by students and assaults on the Guardsmen in the form of throwing rocks. The Kent State shootings are a tragic reminder of the unrest and social change of the time, but are also part of a political and cultural “parting of the Red Sea” moment that continues today.
The reaction to the shootings among Americans obviously varied but seemed to produce two especially large groups: Those who thought the students put themselves in harm’s way and gave the guardsmen little choice but to shoot (students were responsible for the shootings), and those who thought nothing the students did justified shooting them (Guardsmen were responsible for the shootings). The internet did not exist in 1970, but the presence of these groups could be found in newspapers and TV news and commentary of the time. One of the lessons of Kent State is that people could look at the same event and reach entirely different conclusions about who was responsible.
Any single characterization of the two groups in the months and years after the shootings is imperfect, but let me try anyway: Law and order vs. challenging authority; majority rule vs. individual rights; traditional American values vs. embracing significant change to the country’s political and cultural fabric. Fast-forward to 2020, and the descriptors have changed but the groups remain: Red states vs. blue states; fake news vs. state-run TV; Trump cultists vs. never-Trumpers. The political and cultural battle lines have shifted somewhat over time, but the bitterness and anger remain. As Theoden said as he contemplated the destruction of his kingdom in “Lord of the Rings”: How did it come to this?
After 9/11, the country set aside its differences in support of securing America’s safety and pursuing those responsible for this horrific event, at least for a few months. Fast-forward to 2020, and even a pandemic responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths (and hundreds of thousands worldwide), has not broken down the political and cultural barriers between the groups. Mourning the loss of life and recognizing the sacrifice of first-responders and health care professionals brings agreement across the groups; questioning the adequacy of the country’s preparation for, and response to, the pandemic provides indisputable evidence that 60,000-plus dead Americans will not bridge the divide. Fifty years after Kent State, our divisions continue and increasingly resemble our national debt: At some point the bill will come due and when it does we won’t like it one bit.
Someone once said that Americans will do the right thing once they have tried everything else. The right thing is to shrink (even slightly) the divisions in the country. To paraphrase Golda Meir, the first woman prime minister of Israel, divisions among the two groups will shrink when we learn to love this country more than we dislike and distrust those in the other group.
Michael Harwell, of Forest Lake, is a college professor.