Thursday, June 5, 2014

Tank Man's Victory for Humanity

No one seems to know for certain who he was — or is — after 25 years.

He has come to be known as "Tank Man"TIME magazine dubbed him the "Unknown Rebel."

It was a Sunday morning in Beijing in early June 1989. It was Saturday night in Texas where I was working for a daily newspaper.

My memory is that it was around 9 or 10 at night, a couple of hours from our deadline for the Sunday morning press run — which would have made it 10 or 11 on Sunday morning in Beijing.

In China, it was the day after the Chinese military forcibly suppressed the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations. That was the lead story on the front page of our newspaper, as it probably was for nearly every paper, but, considering the time difference, it was also a developing story, and we were trying to keep an eye on it.

Back in that newsroom in Texas, most of the pages were done, and we were sort of killing time while we waited for whichever articles we were expecting locally — but we knew that, if events began to unfold rapidly in China, we might need to substitute a revised version of the wire story we had on our front page — possibly at the last minute.

That's how it is sometimes in the news business. Well, actually, that's how it always is. The nature of news being what it is, anything could happen at any time, and a newspaper's editors have to be ready for the unexpected.

With Tiananmen Square, we had the luxury (if you want to call it that) of knowing where to watch for dramatic events to unfold — but we didn't know the when part, and that is just the way it is. Most of the time, when you're working the copy desk, you just have to hope that, if something dramatic does happen, it happens before your deadline.

Well before your deadline.

And a major event did unfold that night.

As we watched the TV in the corner of the newsroom, "Tank Man" walked out into the middle of the avenue and confronted a column of Chinese tanks. I watched in stunned silence with the rest of my colleagues. If someone had asked me about it at that moment, I would have replied that I expected to see the tanks roll over that man live on TV.

It had already been a bloody weekend in Beijing.

But the lead tank tried to go one way, then another, rather than crush the man. The man moved each time so that he remained in the tank's path. Eventually, the tanks' crews shut off their engines.

Tank Man then appeared to scold the tanks and their crews.

In the aftermath of the event, some people identified Tank Man as being an individual named Wang Weilin, a resident of Beijing, but that has never been confirmed, and no one seems to know what became of Tank Man after he was taken away. Some say he was executed; others say he is alive and well.

Back in Texas, we had to remake the front page to run a picture taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener. Turned out to be one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

But it was one of those events that can't really be captured in a single photograph. You have to see the video; in 1989, that could only be done via television. The advances in technology in the last quarter of a century have revolutionized the news business. In the 21st century, a newspaper can post a video to its website that expands on articles and photos in its print edition.

Tank Man carried no weapons when he confronted the tanks, just two shopping bags. I couldn't tell what they contained.

It was almost comical at times, the way he chided the tanks. I was reminded of a father bawling out misbehaving children.

But the Chinese military was hardly made up of children, and I suspected at the time that Tank Man probably would be taken into custody and executed.

I hope he is still alive.

But, even if he is not, Tank Man was a reminder of words that were spoken by educator Horace Mann 130 years earlier: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

On this day a quarter of a century ago, Tank Man did win a victory for humanity.

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