It’s not the case that nobody sides with the National Guard at Kent State -- terrible people abound -- but it’s definitely true that history condemns them. We can’t reconcile the massacre of protesters, even less-than-peaceful protesters, with our idea of democracy. We do not condone it when soldiers slaughter unarmed teenagers on US soil. We ‘re not willing to be that country.
We were then.
A Gallup poll conducted after the shootings showed that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students for the massacre. Nixon’s prepared statement said that the protesters’ behavior “invite[d] tragedy” -- in other words, they were asking for it. You can bet your ass that if there had been Internet comments sections in 1970, they would have been full of misspelled missives about how those hippies only got what they deserved. Since there weren’t, those people sent hate mail to the victims’ mothers instead.
Improbably, we’ve grown a little since then. This country still teems with warmongers, but there are no longer 100 million people who think college students deserve to be shot and killed for protesting. Forty years later, what looked to many at the time like a moral morass now has a clear right side and a wrong side, and the people being lifted into the light are the ones who were the good guys all along.
We’ve evolved in other ways too, ways it’s easy to forget because so much injustice remains. In the 60s, many Americans would have cheered the police who set their dogs on civil rights demonstrators; now, most people learn as early as elementary school that these were shameful actions in a shameful time. Tacit racial discrimination is widespread and insidious, and maybe harder to eradicate than the officially sanctioned kind -- but segregation is no longer state policy, and people who want to discriminate in education, employment or medical care now do so in spite of the law, not because of it. We are not good, but we are better.
And if we keep zooming back through time, we see this again and again: a group of people who reject the status quo, who frighten and anger the majority by refusing to accept ingrained injustices, but who in retrospect are understood to be the first wave of a better, gentler world, a society made incrementally more kind by their influence.
It’s not that things always get better across the board, or that they do it on any kind of predictable rising slope. Inequalities expand and contract. New wars replace the ones that met protest and were ended, or met protest and fizzled shamefully out. Police forces quietly gird themselves like they were invading armies. Corporate interests latch on to the government, and the government’s skin grows over them like a wounded tree. And the arc of history bends so slowly that it doesn’t seem to move at all.
I don’t actually think most people are basically decent at heart. People are bastards, on average. But at the societal level, there can be a kind of emergent decency, where civilization becomes more humane than the sum of its parts.
It’s not like me to be this positive, honestly. But when something like this happens, it either makes you despair about the world, or it makes you want to fix it. And despite all appearances, I think it’s fixable. Not quickly, not completely, not by any one of us -- but by all of us, a little at a time.