Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…four dead in Ohio
I have written a lot in the past few years to commemorate the 50th anniversary of various spaceflight milestones: the Apollo 8 lunar orbit, Apollo 11’s landing in 1969, and so on. I do that because I love the American space program, of course, but also because I believe its accomplishments rank among the greatest in human history. They are certainly shining lights in the 20th century.
But we must also remember the darker days, lest, to paraphrase Santayana, we be doomed to repeat their mistakes.
This day 50 years ago, on May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guard soldiers during a protest against the Vietnam War. Nine others were injured, a college campus became a battlefield, and the entire nation lost whatever vestiges of innocence it still had after years of needless death in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
I was not alive for these events. They were 13 years before I was born; those who lost their lives were over a decade older than my parents! Yet I have seen the documentaries. I’ve read the stories. That is how history survives, through the telling and retelling of events beyond our own experience. In the modern era, we have photographs, television recordings, and other resources beyond mere—and fallible—human memory.
For Kent State, I’ve watched the videos from the tragedy itself, and few things have ever left me more disgusted, more saddened, and more…angry. It boggles my mind how anyone, even soldiers trained in the art of war and encouraged to look at their enemy as less than human, could think this was a good thing, a just thing. Yet they did not hold their fire. If they stopped to think, “These are young Americans, people just like me, and they’re doing what’s right,” then it never showed in their actions.
Worse, however, is the public perception that followed. In the wake of the massacre, polls showed that a vast majority of people in this country supported the soldiers. Yes. About two-thirds of those surveyed said they felt it was justified to use lethal force against peaceful protestors who were defending themselves.
Let’s break that down, shall we? First, protests are a right. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble” is guaranteed in the First Amendment; it doesn’t get the attention of speech, religion, and the press, but it’s right there alongside them. And remember that the Bill of Rights, as I’ve repeatedly stated in my writings, is not a list of those rights the government has granted its citizenry. Rather, it’s an incomplete enumeration of rights we are born with—“endowed by our Creator”, in Jefferson’s terms—that cannot be taken away by a government without resorting to tyranny.
Some may argue that the Kent State protests were not peaceful. After all, the iconic video is of a student throwing a canister of tear gas at the police officers called in to maintain order, right? But that argument falls flat when you see that the tear gas came from those same cops. It was fired to disperse the crowd. The protestors didn’t like that, so they risked physical danger (not only the chance of getting shot, but even just burns from the canisters themselves) to clear the space they had claimed as their own.
And finally, the notion that killing students was the only way to end the protest would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. They were unarmed. Deescalation should always be the first option. Whatever you think about the protest itself, whether you feel it was wholly justified or dangerously un-American, you cannot convince me that shooting live rounds into a crowd is an acceptable answer. The only way, in my opinion, you could convince yourself is if you accept the premise that these students were enemy collaborators, and the National Guard’s response was legitimate under the rules of engagement.
But that presumes a dangerous proposition: that American citizens opposing a government action they feel is morally wrong constitutes a threat to the nation. And here we see that those lessons learned in Kent State 50 years ago have been forgotten since.
Today, we don’t have the Vietnam War looming over us. The eternal morass of Iraq and Afghanistan, despite taking twice as much time (and counting), has long since lost the furious reactions it once inspired. Trump’s presidency was worth a few marches, the Occupy and Tea Party movements were quashed or commandeered, and even the Great Recession didn’t prompt much in the way of social unrest.
But a virus did.
Rather, the government response to the Wuhan virus, whether on the federal, state, or local level, has, in some places, been enough to motivate protests. The draconian lockdown orders in Michigan, California, North Carolina, and elsewhere, unfounded in science and blatantly unconstitutional, have lit a fire in those most at risk from the continued economic and social devastation. Thousands marching, cars causing gridlock for miles, and beaches flooded with people who don’t want to hurt anyone, but just yearn to breathe free. It’s a stirring sight, a true show of patriotism and bravery.
Yet too many people see it as something else. They believe the protests dangerous. The governors know what’s best for us, they argue. They have experts backing them up. Stay at home, they say. It’s safe there. Never mind that it isn’t. As we now know through numerous scientific studies, the Wuhan virus spreads most easily in isolated environments and close quarters. It’s most deadly for the elderly, and some two out of every three deaths (even overcounting per federal guidelines) come from nursing homes and similar places. For the vast majority of people under the age of 60, it is, as the CDC stated on May 1, barely more of a risk than “a recent severe flu season” such as 2017-18. Compared to earlier pandemic flu seasons (e.g., 1957, 1969), it’s not that bad, especially to children.
Of course, people of all sorts are dying from it. That much is true, and my heart cries out for every last one of them. Stopping our lives, ending our livelihoods, is not the answer. People, otherwise healthy people who aren’t senior citizens, die from the flu every year. My cousin did in 2014, and he was 35. That’s the main reason I feared for my life when I was sick back in December; looking back, the symptoms my brother and I showed match better with the Wuhan virus than with the flu, and each week brings new evidence pointing to the conclusion that it was in the US far earlier than we were told. If that is what we had, it didn’t kill us, just like it won’t kill the overwhelming majority of people infected.
Epidemiology isn’t my goal here, however. I merely wanted to remind anyone reading this that the virus, while indeed a serious threat, is not the apocalypse hyped by the media. Common sense, good hygiene, and early medical treatment will help in most cases, and that’s no different from the flu, or the pneumonia that almost put me in the ICU in 2000, or even the common cold.
Now that all indications are showing us on the downslope of the curve, I’d rather look to the coming recovery effort, and the people—the patriots—who have started that conversation in the most public fashion. The Reopen America protestors are doing exactly what Americans should do when they perceive the threat of government tyranny: take to the streets and let your voice be heard. Civil disobedience is alive and well, and that is a good thing. It’s an American thing.
The movement is unpopular, alas. Reopen protestors are mocked and derided. Those who report on them in a favorable light are called out. A quick perusal of Twitter, for instance, will turn up some truly awful behavior. Suggestions that anyone protesting should be required to waive any right to medical treatment. Naked threats of calling Child Protective Services on parents who let their kids play outside. Worst of all, the holier-than-thou smugness of those who would willingly lock themselves away for months, if not years, over something with a 99.8% survival rate, solely on the basis of an appeal to authority.
A past generation would call such people Tories; in modern parlance, they are Karens. I call them cowards. Not because they fear the virus—I did until I learned more about it, and I accept that some people probably do need to be quarantined, and that some commonsense mitigation measures are necessary for a short time.
No, these people are cowards because they have sacrificed their autonomy, their rationality, and their liberty on an altar of fear, offerings to their only god: government. It’s one thing to be risk-averse. We beat worse odds than 500-to-1 all the time, but there’s always a chance. To live your life paralyzed by fear, unable to enjoy it without worrying about all the things that might kill you, that’s a terrible way to live. I know. I’ve been there. But never in my darkest moments did I consider extending my misery to the 320 million other people in this country. That is true cowardice, to be so afraid of the future that you would take it from everyone else.
Protest is a powerful weapon. The Vietnam War proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Fifty years ago today, four Ohio students paid the ultimate price for wielding that weapon. But they died believing what they did was right. They died free, because they died in a public expression of the freedom each of us is gifted the day we’re born.
Better that than dying alone in your safe space.