The Fourth Tank
Posted on June 26, 2015
As a 14 year old in the summer of 1989, I was glued to the television as the massacre played out in Tiananmen Square. Until that point in my life, I had not witnessed such a disgraceful government act against its own people. At the same time, I had not seen such courage by students and citizens, with up to one thousand giving their life in the hope of a better future for their country.
While I didn’t know what it all meant at the time, Tiananmen Square has remained a challenge that I have internalized in my life. The challenge those protesters posed was: “Would I have the courage, if the time and situation demanded, to lay my life down for something I believed in and knew to be right?” While it was hard for my 14 year old self to grasp the scale of the massacre itself, something that happened the day after the clearing of Tiananmen Square showed me what it truly meant to take on this challenge.
After days of indiscriminate shooting of protesters by the military, it become very clear that disobedience meant death or, maybe even worse, imprisonment. By June 5th, it seemed to be over, with force and power suppressing the voices of freedom and reform. Then, video and pictures emerged of a man confronted with a time, place and situation to make his stand against the unethical and violent acts of his military.
We have all seen the picture of the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square. These tanks were brought in to clear the square of protesters and, unfortunately, were very effective in doing this task. Once the government had cleared the square, the tanks were either being sent back to their base or repositioned.
Then, as if just walking home from the local grocery store, a plainly dressed man emerged into my 14 year old consciousness. After all the bloodshed, there could have been no doubt in his mind that what he did next would lead to his death. Yet, this mysterious man stops in the middle of the road, blocking the path of an oncoming line of tanks.
Even at 14, I knew how this would end. We were witnessing the last moments of yet another protester, a martyr for what seemed like a cause lost. The head tank tried to move around our hero, but a man is quicker than a tank over a short distance and he again had the “advantage,” and the tank shut off its engine. Next, he found his voice and jumped up on the tank and started yelling something at his countrymen inside. In the meantime, three other tanks lined up behind the first and, for a moment, one man had stopped the power that had destroyed so many lives and hopes over the last couple of days.
Eventually, a group of people (not those in the tanks) pulled him off the street. Most observers think these were the Public Security Bureau in street clothes, though the fact one was on a bicycle makes me wonder if they weren’t neighbors rushing into save their friend’s life. While some have put forth possible identities for our hero, these attempts have not stood up to examination. We are left with a role model whose face and name we will likely never know, but who challenges us all.
I have had a black and white poster of this moment that I have carried from one apartment to the next, and now hangs in my office in my house. The picture I see every day is not the most famous shot but one I think tells a much deeper story of the fourth tank. Here is my favorite photo of all time, and one that reminds me every day of that challenge I took on as a 14 year old boy.
Look at the fourth tank. On a road with ten or twelve lanes, this tank had nearly forty yards on either side of the man to move around the obstruction, basically ending the protest that continues to embarrass the Chinese government. Yet, as it so often the case, power and force lack a certain level of creativity, and instead of thinking independently, the fourth tank pulls right up behind the others essentially boxing in the other three.
When I purchased this photo decades ago, I’m not sure I realized the power of this particular moment. One courageous man versus a multi-ton weapon, the fourth tank, having every opportunity and advantage to avoid the protest. Yet it falls right in line in the face of nonviolent and spontaneous disobedience. Sometimes I wonder if the Tank Man ever saw the fourth tank, since the first one dwarfs him and must take up his entire visual field.
The lesson I’m reminded of every day is that our collective dedication to helping those in need and fighting for ethical and logical policies and change is sometimes also dwarfed by the challenge immediately in front of us (the first three tanks). As ordinary folks, we stand for what we believe in and confront injustices that impact our clients and communities in negative ways. We do this every day by our dedication to others and our commitment to social justice.
We may never see the fourth tank, never realize the full impact of our normal everyday actions. My friends, the tanks we face are often much bigger than ourselves and, like our hero, there might not seem like much of a chance for victory. But we can’t underestimate the unseen results of the compassion and love we give to others. In many ways, we all live up to the challenge: “Would I have the courage, if the time and situation demanded, to lay my life down for something I believed in and knew to be right?”
My question this week is: Can you see past the first few tanks and see some of the deeper impacts of your work and advocacy?