This June 4 marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. On that date in 1989, the Chinese government violently cracked down on peaceful student-led protests seeking greater freedom and increased anti-corruption measures.
Nothing summarizes the true nature of this event better than the images of Tank Man. On June 5, 1989, a single man in a typical outfit of that era—white shirt and black pants—stood in the middle of the road, blocking a convoy of tanks trying to violently take control of the square.
Video shows the tanks repeatedly attempting to go around the man, but the man shifting position to continue to block the line of tanks. After several failed attempts to get around, the lead tank shut its engines, and all the following tanks stopped moving forward. For a short while, there was a quiet impasse between a lone person and the column of tanks he faced down.
Then he was seen climbing up to the lead tank and having a brief conversation with the soldiers. After he climbed down from the tank, the tank’s engine started. The tank man resumed his position to block it. After a while, two people ran to the man and pulled him away. The tanks and soldiers went on to carry out their deadly order—do whatever it takes to clear the square.
Photos were taken by photographers, including Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, and smuggled out of China. His image has become one of the most enduring and influential images in human history with a universal appeal: the ability of a single person to stand up to a brutal power.
Unfortunately, most people inside China have never seen it, and new generations of Chinese people don’t even know the Tiananmen Massacre ever took place, thanks to the Chinese government’s efforts to rewrite history, lying about what really happened and relentlessly suppressing anyone from speaking the truth.
Bravery Glimpsed for the First Time
With the 30th anniversary, it may be time to consider the image of Tank Man in new ways. Often, our image of Tank Man is a man standing up to a three- or four-tank convoy. We are taken with his bravery. But a wider shot taken by Stuart Franklin gives a new perspective: the convoy Tank Man stops is at least a dozen tanks, backed by lines of foot soldiers. Tank Man’s bravery is shown in new relief.
Note also what’s in Tank Man’s hands: grocery bags. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for him), Tank Man’s identity is lost to history. We don’t know who this young man is or what happened to him since his heroic act.
The grocery bags in his hands have always particularly resonated with me. We don’t know his age. We don’t know if he took part in the protests. From his simple outfit and the grocery bags in his hands, it is safe to assume that he didn’t set out to be a hero or do anything extraordinary on that summer day. He might have been returning from a regular trip to the grocery store when he saw injustice about to occur. Whatever the circumstance, he took action.
Since I live in the United States now, the likelihood I ever see a convoy of armored vehicles rolling down Main Street is very low. Still, when I look at the photo now, I can’t help thinking about my weekly trips to the grocery store. Would I be prepared, in the moment, to risk my life for my ideals? Would any of us?
What Ordinary Heroes Do
We often romanticize heroes, believing a hero must have an outsized personality and always knows what the right thing to do is at the moment of crisis. Some heroes probably are like that. But others are like Tank Man—they led ordinary lives and, under normal circumstances, they would easily disappear into a crowd. Yet when encountering something evil, rather than capitulating or retreating, they stepped forward to take a stand, to stare the evil power down, and to throw themselves in harm’s way so others may be saved.
Two weeks ago, Coloradans celebrated the life of one such hero, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, a senior at a Denver science school. When gunmen opened fire on his classmates, Castillo didn’t try to find a place to hide. Instead, he ran toward one of the shooters. Two classmates, Brendan Bialy and Joshua Jones, joined him in charging the shooter. These three young men’s heroic actions are credited with saving other lives. Castillo was fatally wounded.
This week, we will commemorate more heroes on June 6, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. On this day in 1944, Allied forces, mostly young Americans and Englishmen, charged the beaches of Normandy in the midst of heavy fire from well-positioned and well-supplied German troops. By the end of the day, about 10,000 of these brave young men were killed, wounded, or missing in action, including 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British, and 946 Canadians.
They came from all walks of life, but were united by one mission. Because of their bravery and ultimate sacrifice, the D-Day landings marked the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and his fascist regime.
From the Allied soldiers who charged at German troops’ firepower in Normandy to the Tank Man who put himself between armored vehicles and innocent protestors in Tiananmen Square to the young students who jumped on a shooter in Colorado, all shared something in common: They are all ordinary individuals who found the strength and courage to throw themselves at evil despite overwhelming obstacles.
After the story of Castillo’s heroic act become public, some people argued that we shouldn’t celebrate heroes too much because such hero-worshiping will “encourage others to take life-threatening action, instead of running or hiding” in dangerous situations. I disagree. Such thinking demeans heroism to some kind of risk-seeking behavior.
But true heroism, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, means “a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” We should loudly and publicly celebrate every hero, because if everyone is content with running and hiding, evil wins.