This Monday, we mark the thirty-ninth year since the Kent State massacre.
I didn’t notice it until I looked up the lyrics to “Ohio” by Neil Young. Today, for me, was just my parents’ anniversary; Friday was Beltane, traditionally a time to celebrate life. But there it was, in black and white, on Wikipedia. May 4, 1970.
This year, I pose to you an old question: “How can you run when you know?”
Three generations of my family have had to face that question. My grandparents were my age during World War II; surely they saw something had gone horribly wrong with their government. The Austrian madman heading it should’ve been a clue. And after, when they rebuilt their lives — I can only imagine the guilt. I live with a fraction of their guilt and a good deal of vigilance because I know it is in my blood, this ability to lose all reason and succumb to barbarism in the guise of protection. My parents were my age during Vietnam; my father actually marched on Washington. Years after the fact, some enormous part of him can’t accept authority, even when he’s helped put it into office.
I came of age during the second Bush administration. He had nothing on Hitler, and he was perhaps on par with Nixon, but then, times had changed, right? We were welcoming a new millennium; time to turn another page in history and stride forward. I’d like to say I saw the light on September 11, 2001, but that was too soon. We were all too scared. I was having these crying jags with little warning and less reason. I dreamed of falling from the sky inside the fuselage of a jet.
I don’t remember when I came around from frightened to furious, but by 2003, yes, I knew we had gone horribly wrong somewhere. I went to Washington weeks before the war and had the temerity to be offended that Hillary Clinton, my senator, had more important tasks than greeting a bunch of schoolchildren. In retrospect, of course she was too busy to see us. How did I not connect those dots before? Yes, she had better things to do, and though I don’t know what they were, I think perhaps they had something to do with fear and retribution, and deciding how much of each were reasonable reactions to one senseless act of terror.
We castigated al-Qaida and the Taliban even as our government tortured prisoners of war. Years later, we are still fighting on those three fronts, aren’t we? Our president doesn’t seem to know what to do about the way we broke the law when it suited us, and we as a people have only now begun to understand that we have the same potential as the Germans between the wars. We don’t care who dies to soothe us, so long as we are soothed. We didn’t learn our lesson from World War II. We didn’t learn it from Vietnam. We may not learn it now.
But we know now. We have been made to hear the truth, if not to face it properly. We cannot clap our hands over our eyes anymore and sing to shut out the noise.
We cannot ask anyone to accept America as a model of justice if we are ourselves unjust. We cannot be moral arbiters if we are ourselves immoral. We must open our eyes and face the music.
How can we run when we know?