What the Kent State Shooting and 9/11 Have in Common

Forty-one years ago today on May 4, 1970, four students were shot on the campus of Kent State in Ohio. National Guardsmen opened fire (at least 67 shots) on hundreds of unarmed students during an antiwar rally. Four students were killed and nine others were wounded.

The Kent State shooting was the defining moment for those in college at the time -- like my father -- in the same way 9/11 was the defining moment for mine. It was a loss of innocence. And from then on, life could easily be divided into two parts -- the part before it happened and the part after.

For many of us, memories of 9/11 came flooding back with the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this week. That, and today's anniversary of the Kent State shooting bring together the defining moments of these two generations.


But what makes an event a "defining" one? For my dad, it was the realization that even as a typical student at a college in a state in the Midwest, you could be shot for voicing your opinion (and actually some of those shot weren't even part of the protest, they were just walking by). It was also the moment where he realized what he believed about his country and government was no more.

In many ways, 9/11 was different. It was a coming together for the first couple weeks rather than a ripping apart. I was suddenly struck by the desire to hug every American I passed on the street and was thrilled to see a million American flags. I will never forget the quiet on the night of 9/11 with only the sounds of fighter jets overhead to break it.

Then a few weeks later, the country became divided and has managed to stay that way, becoming perhaps even worse. Maybe it was that way in 1970, too. My father and his friends were campus radicals in their early 20s at a university in Ohio and their world was rocked by Kent State.

I was a young professional just out of college who watched people in their early 20s (my age) leap to their deaths from the top floor of the burning World Trade Center. My father seemed calm around 9/11 while I was freaked out for weeks and wanted to talk about it almost every day for the next year or more.

But he had been where I was in the months after 9/11. To this day, my dad still brings up Kent State almost every day. There is something about that age -- the early 20s. You are young and idealistic and just starting life. These two events both changed my father and me forever. And now they are linked because of this week.

I wonder what event will define my children's generation. It's impossible to know now, but I will likely never be able to explain to them what 9/11 meant to me in the same way my father could never explain to me what Kent State meant to him. I could read about it. But I couldn't get it in my bones.

It's just a generational thing. 

What was your defining generational moment?


Image via jonridinger/Flickr

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