Blaming the victim

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Kent State Reconsidered as Nightmare by Jon Corelis, originally published in The Journal of Psychohistory, v. 8 no. 2 Fall 1980

Public reaction to the bloodshed at Kent State fell pretty clearly into three categories.
  • Government officials generally tried to avoid assigning direct responsibility to anyone, while subtly implying that the students themselves were to blame. With his typical political cleverness, Richard Nixon summed up this attitude in his statement, "When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy." By definition, no one is to blame for a tragedy, but the first half of Nixon's statement clearly suggests that it was the dissident students, not the guardsmen, whose activities suddenly erupted into violence.
  • The majority of young people, on the other hand, together with a relatively small number of adults (most of them anti-Vietnam War liberals) felt that the killings were plain murder.
  • There is every indication, however, that the prevalent reaction among white middle-class adults was one of fierce satisfaction. Among these people, who constitute the bulk of our population, the shootings were very commonly justified on two grounds: that they were deserved ("The students shouldn't have been demonstrating") and that they were necessary ("There was a sniper" or "The guardsmen's lives were in danger.") More often than not, this majority response went far beyond mere approval. In the weeks after the killings, for example, the townspeople of Kent adopted the custom of greeting each other by holding up four fingers, signifying "We got four of them."
The young victims were not only blamed, they were reviled. James Michener reports in his massive and definitive book Kent State: What Happened and Why, that the most grotesque and abusive rumors about the slain students were rife in Kent: they were dope addicts, they were infested with lice and syphilis, their filthy bodies stank so badly that the ambulance attendants gagged.[Michener 462-469.]
This outpouring of anger and hatred towards the victims was not limited to Ohio. When New York City's mayor ordered flags lowered in memory of the four slain students, enraged construction workers assaulted a number of young people at a rally in the city's financial district and forced city officials to raise flags to full mast.[New York Times May 9 1970: 1 col. 5.] A cursory survey of the letters columns in major U.S. newspapers and magazines immediately reveals a preponderance of opinion that the dead and wounded students richly deserved what had happened to them.

What Really Happened at Kent State?, by Caroline Arnold for Common Dreams, 7 May 2004

It seemed pretty plain to me that what really happened was that professional soldiers had fired rifles into a crowd of unorganized, unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others. Yet the clerks would interrupt me: No, they would say uneasily, what really happened was that the those dirty scumbag students were criminals (or Communists) and the soldiers were forced to shoot them: "They deserved it."

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