“Flowers are better than bullets.” – Allison Krause, 1970
This week marked the 46th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University. On May 4th 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 shots at college students who were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Four unarmed students were killed, while nine others were seriously injured.
A few months ago, I found a website named after Allison Krause, one of the young students killed that day. Just as this website is named after my brother Kevin, Allison’s younger sister, Laurel, created the NGO The Allison Center for Peace in honor of her memory and as a way to search for the truth for what happened that day.
In 1979, the relatives of the victims at Kent State received an out-of-court settlement from the state of Ohio and a “statement of regret and intentions” from Ohio officials. However, even today, they do not have all the answers. In 2012, they formally requested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague consider justice at Kent State. And this Wednesday, they asked that the FBI release whatever relevant documents they possess.
Laurel Krause cited the British government’s apology for the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland as a possible model “for America to heal the wounds of Kent State.” There are parallels between Bloody Sunday and the Kent State incident, both involving government troops firing upon their own citizens. After a lengthy investigation and report, in 2010 British Prime Minister David Cameron had this to say:
“What happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day, and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am deeply sorry.”
The families of the victims of Kent State are looking for more than “a statement of regret and intentions.” An apology and an honest accounting can both go a long way. As I’ve written before, several governments have shown courage by confronting some of the more difficult parts of their past. In addition to Bloody Sunday, the Japanese government apologized for colonizing Korea, and the U.S. Senate apologized to African-Americans for slavery and segregation. My favorite example comes from 2007, when the Danish government apologized for the Viking raids of Ireland, which occurred 1,200 years earlier.
If an apology can be extended (and accepted) after a millennium, then perhaps there is no statute of limitations on confronting a difficult past, for understanding, or even for reconciliation. While others have warned that apologies and truth commissions are not a panacea, and that “confronting the past is ineluctably political,” it is clear that the families of Kent State should not have to wait 46 years for their wounds to heal.