By Damon Krane
Monday, September 16, 2002
The Post (Athens, Ohio)
Tuesday, September 17, 2002
The Daily Utah Chronicle
“We plotted a demonstration to napalm a dog,” Bill said with a completely straight face, “which I became very famous or infamous for, depending on your point of view.”
It was May 4, 2002, the 32nd anniversary of the murder of four Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard during protests of the Nixon Administration’s bombing of Cambodia. Each year, instead of getting high to the tune of “Stop, hey, what’s that sound?” or sleeping through the watered-down university sponsored events, a group of students called the May Fourth Task Force fittingly commemorates the anniversary by bringing a wide range of progressive political activists to Kent State to speak about current issues.
While attending this past year’s events, I had the chance to talk with a high school history teacher named Bill. Bill had been a student anti-war organizer at Kent State during the time of the shootings. He also was one of the Kent Twenty-Five, the 25 students and faculty members indicted by an Ohio grand jury after the shootings.
None of the National Guardsmen who fired fatal shots, nor the politicians responsible for arming them with high-powered rifles and live ammunition, nor Governor Rhodes who ordered the Guard to use whatever force was necessary to disperse any gathering of students, faced criminal charges. Only students and professors were indicted – including two of the nine students who survived being shot by the Guard.
“The joke at the time was that they were guilty of getting in the way of bullets,” Bill quipped as we sat at a picnic table overlooking the parking lot that the KSU administration built overtop of the spots where three of the murdered students had laid dead. Small pillars now somewhat prevent parking in one spot per slain student.
Bill had enrolled at Kent State in 1968, shortly before a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the historic nation-wide leftist student organization, was formed at the school. Three years earlier SDS had called its first anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. There, before a crowd of 25,000 concerned Americans, SDS president Paul Potter made a very provocative argument. He blamed U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia on the organization of powerful U.S. institutions rather than the actions of evil individuals.
“[The war] depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisers thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of the decisions they make,” Potter argued. “If asked to throw napalm on the back of a 10-year-old child, they would shrink in horror, but their decisions have led to the mutilation and death of thousands and thousands of people.”
I spend a lot of time contemplating the notion that relatively decent people make terrible decisions when they’re far removed from the consequences of their actions. I think it helps to explain much of what is wrong in this world, and also suggests how we might go about fixing it.
Take, for example, the situation with Wal-Mart. The corporation’s use of sweatshop child labor overseas; its complicity with the military dictatorship of Myanmar; its often illegal union-busting tactics at home and abroad; its proven lies to consumers about American-made merchandise; its strategy of devastating small businesses and redistributing wealth out of local communities and into the pockets of the Walton family and other wealthy shareholders… those and a host of other sleazy practices which have made Wal-Mart the world’s largest retailer have been well-documented by the National Labor Committee and various human rights groups.
Sure, this stuff isn’t standard fare among the corporate-controlled media, but it has occasionally popped up on mainstream television news magazines like 20/20. The Athens News ran a front page story on it in August, Amanda Sledz has written about it for The Athens Insider, and you can easily find information online or in the pages of any dissident progressive publication like The Nation, In These Times, or Z Magazine.
Nevertheless, I doubt the typical Wal-Mart shopper (much less the average Wal-Mart employee) is a die-hard sweatshop fan or an avid proponent of inequality and government-aided capitalist exploitation. It’s just that when performing a cost-benefit analysis of shopping at Wal-Mart, the benefits are immediate and right in front of you, while the costs are a few years down the line or halfway around the world. You get to see low prices and the smiling face of an “associate greeter” as you enter the store. You don’t have to look at the below-subsistence wages of overseas workers putting in 70-hour weeks, the faces of their malnourished children, or the mangled body of a would-be union organizer lying in some Third World ditch. Nor do you have to struggle to live those lives yourself.
And this brings me back to that day at Kent and Bill’s dog-napalming demonstration.
“I was speaking in front of the student center,” Bill explained of that day on campus three decades ago. “I explained what napalm was, how it’s used, and that it was developed on a university campus after World War II.”
“At the end of my speech, I asked the crowd, ‘How many of you have come here today to stop me from napalming this dog?’ They all growled and shook their fists, and I said, ‘Good for you. Now take it one step further and realize that your government is not just napalming one dog at Kent State but tens of thousands of people in Vietnam. And just because it’s on the other side of the world doesn’t make it any less real.”
“Thank you for coming here,” he said. “Now please act on your conscience.”