Resistance and the Main Stream Media

As we enter a dark period in our country, where our new President is signing executive orders to ban certain immigrants from coming here, a ban that this morning was stayed by a Federal judge (as reported here), I have again been profoundly struck by the importance of what happened on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University.
Four days after President Richard Nixon announced that we had invaded Cambodia in our effort to fight the Vietnam War, unarmed students gathered on the commons at Kent State University to demand an end to the war. There had been ongoing protests across the country in the months leading up to the invasion, and often they had turned violent in more radical places like Berkeley or even Ohio State University. Kent was a sleepy little college town, known for its music and bar scene. No one expected what was about to happen.
As protesters and curious bystanders stood scattered about the lawn and Prentice parking lot, the Guardsmen trooped down to the practice football field, where they ended up trapped between a fence and the students. They turned and got down on their knees and pointed their rifles at the crowd behind them. A roar of laughter went up when they announced to the students “We have you surrounded.” Most believed that the Guard didn’t have loaded weapons, or that their rifles only had rubber bullets in them.
The Guard, realizing their mistake, trudged back up the hill to a small pagoda near Taylor Hall. Students thought the rally was over, and a number of them began the walk to noon classes.
Seconds later, the Guard turned in one swift movement, dropped their rifles into firing position again, and shot indiscriminately into the crowd. In thirteen seconds, they killed four, wounded nine, and blew out windows in at least two dorms firing more than 60 bullets from their rifles. The Vietnam War had come to America. Two of the students killed were in the honor’s college. One was in the ROTC.
As savage as this act was, it was the reaction of the Main Stream Media and the average citizen that is perhaps the most shocking of this shocking story. While the National Student Association called for a nationwide strike to protest the “appalling use of force” at KSU, the media reports left most Americans with the impression that the students had left the Guard with no alternative. They were led to believe, subtly and overtly, what many of the people whom they interviewed said: “They should have killed them all.”
Such a statement seems incomprehensible, yet it was uttered again and again, in extreme cases even by parents of students who had been at the rally.
While it is important to judge and condemn these types of overt sanctioning of authoritarian oppression, I found myself wondering how anyone could even say such things. But fear is a powerful force.
If you’ve been lucky enough not to ever know fear, then you should be very grateful. I have known fear. When America decided to intervene in Bosnia, I was torn. I believed it was our moral duty as the leader of the free world. But my husband was on active duty in the Marine Corps. I found myself questioning whether what was going on in Bosnia was something that was worth his life, or the lives of our friends. I had to remind myself that this was how Europe acted as it did while Germany advanced. Because suddenly I understood their fear. It is one thing to grandly pronounce that we must not tolerate aggression against the innocent. It is another to risk your loved ones making the ultimate sacrifice in order to stop that aggression. In the end, I had to support our intervention in Bosnia, but it was not without a new understanding of the price paid by those who stand up for right in the face of tyranny, especially when they could choose to stay silent.
It took time, but most of the truth has come out about that fateful day that forever changed not just the KSU campus but the entire country. The shootings at Kent State became the final straw in Americans’ tolerance for the Vietnam War. As is usually the case in this country, justice was half served, as several in the Guard went on trial for the shootings, but none were convicted. Instead there was a formal settlement. The DOJ refused to convene a grand jury, but U.S. Attorney General Mitchell found that the use of force had been “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
This is why it is so important to remember our history. Just as I was able to understand my own fears over the crisis in Bosnia through the lens of how Germany had been allowed to take first one, and then another, and another, country in Europe, we must remember the lessons learned at KSU. The students, while on the side of history, were not popular with the Nixon Administration. Those who protested were continually being denigrated by Vice President Agnew as the worst members of our society, bent on destroying American values. But even more importantly, the Nixon Administration did everything it could to present the students, and anyone else who questioned their decisions, as radically dangerous. They systematically sowed fear in the American public of the student protesters in order to discredit these generally peaceful protesters. They were helped along in this by the fringe left groups, such as The Weathermen, who carried out acts of violence in the name of “justice.” While these groups claimed to be in stark opposition to the Nixon White House, they provided more than enough fodder to convince ordinary Americans that there was a dangerous element that our government was protecting them from, and this element included all of the students protesting the Vietnam War across the country. The Weathermen and their kind legitimized the Nixon Administration’s tale of terror, proving there was a bogey man that only the government could save us from.
The Main Stream Media was often complicit in this, as it was when it first reported on the KSU shootings. The very first reports out of the scene claimed that two National Guardsmen had been shot by students. This was patently false, and no evidence has ever surfaced that any students were even armed. Yet people rallied behind the Guard initially on the reports that made it seem as though the Guard had been left with no alternative in order to protect themselves, another patently false position. The news reported, falsely, that the Guard had feared for their lives as student protesters attacked them with rocks and other projectiles. While there was evidence of some rock throwing and empty tear gas canister throwing, none of this put the Guard in any danger of serious bodily harm.
Slowly, the Free Press began to truly investigate what had really happened, spurred largely and ironically on by the FBI’s investigation into the shootings which found that the story presented by the government was largely false. The Press began to look at the photographic evidence, the testimony of those who were there, including Guardsmen, and it found that the story it had been telling was simply untrue. For more on the aftermath of the shootings, visit here. But it took a very long time for that truth to come out, and a lot of damage was done in the interim.
President Nixon went on television the evening of May 4th and told our nation that it was unfortunate about the dead and wounded students but that “tragedy is invited when dissent turns to violence.” This was, of all his lies during his tenure, perhaps the most egregious. The dissent had not turned violent. But the National Guard had.
Kent State teaches us that it is imperative to demand from the Free Press the truth. It teaches us that the truth is often not an easy thing to discern, but that it does exist. Facts exist. The current Administration’s attempt to make us believe that there are “alternative facts” is part and parcel of the orchestration to discredit the Free Press. Just as Nixon tried to instill fear and alternative facts into the shootings at Kent State, our current President has tried to divide our country with fear and falsehoods. It is up to the Free Press to make sure that this is not allowed. But we must never forget the lesson that KSU teaches us: it is up to us to make the Free Press do it’s job.

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