Before I started attending Kent State in the fall of 1975, I was a kid living in small-town Ashtabula, Ohio, in a county by the same name, which had lost 26 servicemen in the Vietnam War. Our state total was 3,094, ranking us fifth in casualties.
I don’t remember seeing a single anti-war protest growing up that wasn’t framed by the console of our TV. We were a working-class town full of boys with no college deferments whose first flights would be to Vietnam. By the late 1960s, it seemed you couldn’t drive in any direction from our house without passing the home of a boy who had gone to Vietnam. My mother was on regular casserole duty in those years, delivering a warm dish to one of three types of gatherings: a send-off, a homecoming or a wake.
Nobody in our house was going to protest the war. My parents would have seen that as an unforgivable act of betrayal.
When I was 12, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of Kent State student protesters and passers-by. Four students died there on May 4, 1970, and nine others were wounded. Five years later, I was a freshman there.
My parents never doubted that I would be safe, but for different reasons. My father expected our town’s legacy of service to keep his eldest daughter’s politics in check. My mother believed that a president would never turn on his citizens again.
It’s all coming back to me after watching the eighth episode of “The Vietnam War,” the public television documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I’m a professional in residence at Kent State now, teaching journalism, and the last half-hour or so of that episode, which includes a segment about the May 4 shootings, prompted me to show that segment to my students. Watching it through their widened eyes, listening to their reactions, was instructive. We journalists pay attention to language.
President Richard Nixon dismissed the press coverage of the ’68 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam as instigated by “those dirty rotten Jews from New York.” On May 2, 1970, two days before the Kent State shootings, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes compared the protesters to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. “They’re worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes,” he said. “They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
Earlier in the documentary, John Musgrave, one of the most frank veteran voices in the film, recalled his “deal with the devil” after the first time he killed a Vietnamese soldier.
“I said I will never kill another human being as long as I’m in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I’ll wax as many dinks as I can find. I’ll smoke as many zips as I can find. But I ain’t going to kill anybody. You know, turn the subject into an object. It’s Racism 101.”
In July, here in Ohio, President Donald Trump called immigrants “animals” who “slice” and “dice” teenage girls. This should surprise no one. On the day he announced his candidacy, he described Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists.
Last week, referring to black NFL players peacefully protesting racism, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired.'” He has called journalists enemies of the American people.
We know how this works.
If we see you as an “animal,” we don’t have to think about your children, whose lives you are trying to save.
If you’re “disrespecting” the U.S. flag, we don’t have to consider what it means to be a black man in America.
If you are an enemy of Americans, we must attack you.
I am haunted by the observation of a young student paying attention to this president’s every word.
“It never ends, does it?” she said to me after class. “There will always be those in power who want to believe that some of us aren’t really human.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and book author.
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