Kent State University’s virtual 50th Commemoration honors and remembers the events of May 4, 1970. (Kent State University photo)

PERSPECTIVE: Kent State 50 Years Later: Was Terrorism Involved?

I am not quite old enough to really remember the Vietnam War. Yes, I was born at the end of 1960 but my knowledge and memories of the conflict are vague. I do recall that one of my older brothers’ best friends – I think he was a dual Canadian-American citizen – actually got drafted and went to ‘Nam. I saw him after he got back and he did seem to have changed, but I did not press him on what he saw and did there.

There is obviously no question that the war was hugely divisive in the U.S. What began as an ill-fated foray into ‘Communist’ containment in Southeast Asia mushroomed into a multi-decade war that ate of tens of thousands of American lives (and probably millions of Vietnamese lives). The litany of human rights abuses is a long one: the My Lai massacre, Agent Orange herbicide/defoliant plus whatever crimes the Viet Cong committed during and after the American deployment.

Opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam rose during the 1960s and ultimately led – probably, although there are undoubtedly many other factors – to the decision to withdraw in 1973. Many took to the streets in U.S. cities or burned their draft cards or… moved to Canada. One of my favorite rock bands of the 1970s – Heart – saw its members emigrate to Vancouver, seeing that fine west coast city as preferable to the jungles of Vietnam (it is estimated that about 20,000 Americans came to Canada to escape the draft and 12,000 others in the armed forces deserted and entered Canada).

At times the opposition turned ugly and there is no incident more emblematic than the May 4, 1970 Kent State University massacre (50 years ago: my how time flies!). That post-secondary institution boasted a long tradition of radical protest and this day was no different. On that day protesters gathered to demonstrate against the presence of a Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building on campus (the ROTC was a major recruitment centre for the U.S. military). University officials had banned the event, but students showed up anyway.

Then the worst case scenario unfolded.

Just after noon, a group of guardsmen suddenly huddled together, retreated briefly, wheeled toward the right, turned in tandem and fired at the students for 13 seconds.

Four students were killed and nine injured. Apparently to this day we still do not know why the guardsmen opened fire. In the eyes of many this was a use of force wildly disproportionate to whatever ‘threat’ the student protesters posed. It was a state agency gone rogue.

Or was it?

It turns out that three days earlier, on May 1, some demonstrators destroyed commercial property in downtown Kent and the following evening the campus building used by the ROTC was torched, probably by a very small fringe of ‘activists’. I don’t know about you, but these acts could very well be deemed as terrorism in my estimation.

Recall that terrorism is a serious act of violence perpetrated for political, religious or ideological reasons. What else were these acts of vandalism/destruction but political in nature? Those who ‘torched’ the ROTC building were definitely making a political statement, one that was most obviously anti-war. I know that Canada is not the U.S., but in our Criminal Code (Section 83.01 on terrorism) it says that an act which “causes substantial property damage, whether to public or private property” and is driven by politics is terrorist in nature.

I do not write this to justify the actions of the U.S. military/civil defense on Kent State or in Vietnam: it is NEVER OK to fire wantonly on unarmed civilians. Those who shot should have been charged with murder and it did seem that people expressing dissent were targeted.

Still, a ‘fringe’ did engage in seriously violent acts. What if someone – say a cleaner – had been in the ROTC building when it was ‘torched’? Would that have been justified given the larger goals of the oppositionists?

In the end, we have to call political violence what it is: terrorism. Picking sides because we like one more than the other is simply not good analysis.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. (www.borealisthreatandrisk.com) and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). He worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) from 2001-2015, specializing in violent Islamist-inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalisation. From 1983 to 2001 he was employed as a senior multilingual analyst at Communications Security Establishment (CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence agency), specialising in the Middle East. He also served as senior special advisor in the National Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada from 2013, focusing on community outreach and training on radicalisation to violence, until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015, and as consultant for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Anti-Terrorism Section (PATS) from May to October 2015. He was the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group from June 2018 to July 2019. Mr. Gurski has presented on violent Islamist-inspired and other forms of terrorism and radicalisation across Canada and around the world. He is the author of “The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) “Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security” (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), The Lesser Jihads: taking the Islamist fight to the world (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), An end to the ‘war on terrorism ’ and When religion kills: how extremist justify violence through faith (Lynne Rienner 2019). He regularly blogs and podcasts (An Intelligent Look at Terrorism – available on his Web site), and tweets (@borealissaves) on terrorism. He is an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) in the Netherlands, a digital fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies at Concordia University, a member of the board at the National Capital Branch of the CIC (Canadian International Council) and an affiliate of the Canadian network for research on Terrorism Security and Society (TSAS). Mr. Gurski is a regular commentator on terrorism and radicalisation for a wide variety of Canadian and international media. He writes at www.borealisthreatandrisk.com.

1 Comment

  1. I am offended that HSToday would publish this piece. First, the author is writing fourth hand with no specific connection to the event. For those of us who were conscious at the time and had personal connections to the murdered students, the suggestion that their death was connected to terrorism is disturbing. Second, the author is contributing from outside the Homeland! I love Canadians, but this just looks like someone shopping their blog to get a publishing credit!

    Sorry! Kent State is too much a part of who I think that I am. Please respect it; don’t use it for extraneous purposes.

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