The day I was radicalized

— John Filo/Getty Images
Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize.

I was messaging back and forth with a friend on Wednesday; we were talking about the hash this country is in now. He surveyed his life in this way: “Radicalized in my youth, re-radicalized in my dotage.”

And the bell went off for me. Wednesday was May 3. May 4 was the 47th anniversary of the Kent State massacre.

You can Google it. That was the day Ohio National Guardsmen, being harassed by rock-throwing college kids, turned and fired on the crowd. The Guardsmen killed four kids, wounded nine others and left one victim paralyzed.

The students, already radicalized themselves by the Vietnam War, were protesting that day President Nixon’s recently announced Cambodian incursion. It’s a sordid chapter, not surprisingly, because the U.S. capitalized on a short period of time when Cambodia was between governments to go in and try to wipe out North Vietnamese and Viet Cong operations operating with impunity in that country’s jungle.

And back at Kent State, as the protests boiled, students who were watching the events unfold on their campus, or who were simply walking to class, came under fire from their own countrymen.

I was the editor of the base newspaper at Twentynine Palms, Calif., that day and word of the shootings went through our base in the desert like the proverbial crap through the goose. Everywhere there was a television, Kent State was on. Among my peers — junior enlisted men and non-commissioned offers — the feeling was general outrage.

We already considered the National Guard to be a haven for draft dodgers. The massacre simply proved that they couldn’t be trusted to march across campus without screwing it up.

I wound up reading everything about Kent State that I could get my hands on. Superb books were:

  • “Kent State: What Happened and Why” by James Michener. (Yeah, THAT James Michener. He had ties to the school and he took a lead role in investigating.)
  • “Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent” by Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts. (Yeah, THAT Joe Eszterhas, still a writer and a longtime Hollywood producer as well. Think “Basic Instinct.”)
  • “The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished” by I.F. Stone. (Yeah, THAT I.F. Stone.)

I commend all those to you. If you read ’em and come away thinking the students got what they deserved, then I believe I can reasonably peg who you voted for last November.

Among my peer group at Twentynine Palms, we knew before those kids had been buried that no one would be held accountable. We were right.

Eight guardsmen were indicted. They claimed self-defense. Civil rights charges were later dismissed, and in the end received a lump sum $675,000 and a statement of regret from the defendants. The money was characterized by the State of Ohio as “estimated cost of defense.”

And I knew then that Republicans would never get my vote. [Which is not to say that it NEVER happened. In 1992, I couldn’t trust that Bill Clinton fella (yet). So I voted for Pat Buchanan in the Republican primary, then I voted for Ross Perot in the general election. My wife reminds me of this every time I begin to rant there is nothing of redeemable value under the Republican banner. The good news for me is that we’re still married.]

Former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, a Republican, once said, “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.” (Funny, I still believe that even in the wake of the Election of 2016, even if I am now apprised that there are a lot more bad people that I had thought there were.)

But Mr. Watts’ idea works for me, insofar as I can trust the government at all.

The Kent State massacre occurred 47 years ago on Thursday. I have enjoyed a lifetime since then, but those kids gunned down by their fellow Americans at Kent State never got their lifetime.

That’s what radicalized me.

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