Does anyone remember? Every time I see this photo, it gives me goosebumps. A friend once told me that when you feel that sensation, that tingly feeling of hairs standing up on the back of your neck and over your scalp, it is an affirmation of the Spirit.
Jeff Widener of the Associated Press took this shot on June 5, 1989, from the 5th floor of the Beijing Hotel, looking down on Chang’an Blvd. He managed to smuggle the film back to the AP office in his underpants.
The crackdown and most of the slaughter took place on June 4, the day before, so the “Tank Man” (a man whose identity still remains a mystery) must have been almost certain he would be killed when he did this. For all we know, he might well have been killed after this shot was taken.
He didn’t seem to care.
We’ve become so cynical that our first reaction is to discount acts of bravery, generosity or, God forbid, empathy, as having some selfish underlying motive. Some would argue that our acts of charity, compassion or empathy are really motivated by our own selfish interests and, in fact, serve to make matters worse by enabling those who would take advantage of our generosity. We discount stories of heroism from the distant past, assuming, perhaps rightly, that much of that heroism has been exaggerated. Those who would argue that humans are selfish by nature can open today’s newspaper and point to a thousand concrete and timely examples to support that premise, and few to counter it. To those, I would ask, What about the Tank Man? What makes people do stuff like this?
I think there’s something inherent in us that can trump our own self-interest — something that can put the interests of humanity ahead of our own self-interest. Sometimes, when a person becomes so angry that he is blinded to self-interest and even self-preservation, his own self-sacrifice might benefit all of humanity. The Tank Man’s anger was directed toward a government that had, just a day before, slaughtered untold thousands of his countrymen — so angry that he was willing to embrace almost certain death, to stand in the path of a column of tanks, to stop that column of tanks, and then to jump atop the lead tank and bang on the hatch, provoking its occupants to look him in the face.
Yes, the revolution was crushed. The Tank Man himself may well have been killed, but no matter how hard the Chinese government tries to suppress them, to erase them from history, these images live on, and when we look at them, we feel our hair standing up.
Without this capacity for losing sight of our own self-interest, there would be no defiance or rebellion. Some would say we could do with a little less defiance, a little less anarchy, and a little more obedience to authority. Without these acts of defiance, the world would be a lot more tidy and orderly, I’ll give you that. Everyone, acting on self-interest, would fear and obey those in power.
However, because of our capacity to be angered by injustice, to be defiant, to stand in opposition to overwhelming force, because of that, we are not entirely predictable. Though we are often manipulated — by money or fear, threat or promise — there is a limit, a wild card, so to speak. And that wild card is our latent trait for acting outside our own self-interest. And, that wild card, that unpredictable trait, latent in all of us, means that we cannot always be manipulated by a simple formula of reward and punishment.
You could make a strong case that this capacity for self-sacrificial defiance has been bred into the very nature of our species, through untold generations — that it evolved with our species over millions of years because it benefitted our survival as a group.
Then again, you might just say it is an affirmation of the Spirit.
— Either way, I believe you!