NOTE: This post is inspired by the anniversary of Tianenmen Square, but I don't intend any more than random philosophical thought by me with no intended goal at the end or really much coherence in my words, so feel free to just skip ahead to the standard comments. And no, nothing major is happening in my life that is making me think this way, I'm just a weird person that had a strange thought this morning. Carry on.
Most people know the iconic image of one civilian stopping the tanks in Tiananmen Square shown above. It's seemingly always assumed as a symbol of a freedom fighter risking his life and daring to walk right up to the tanks to make them run him over or stop. That he was part of the rebellion all along and was taking a daring step in furtherance of that ideology. But there's another important photo from that day and that hour, one that changes the view entirely with a minute or two previous showing of the same scene:
The tank man is not one of the freedom fighters. Those guys that were throwing rocks and carrying signs are smart enough in self-preservation to be running away from the tanks, they're the guys in the foreground. But with the tanks approaching on the right, you see the same man standing in the left background in this picture.
At this exact moment he is just minutes or seconds away from the tanks rumbling onto the path he had previously been taking. A simple path where he was just carrying groceries home. He was not part of the protests, he was out buying food at the time. The protests were probably an annoyance to him in how they slowed down his day. And the tanks cracking down were probably just the latest straw in the haystack cycle of oppression and protest that made his day a little worse every day for the past few months.
Perhaps he had just had enough. A wave of fleeing protesters didn't make him change his path home, and neither did a stack of tanks. He had just had enough and was probably more bewildered and worn out than anything. Just ready to die, not for a cause, but because of a crushing world around him. Or at least that's what I personally see in his slumped stance and his incongruously still carrying one of his bags. You may see differently. And that's interesting to me, not least of all because all of the speculation on his thoughts are always going to be just that: speculation. Because "Tank Man" remains unconfirmed in his identity, and certainly in his thoughts and psyche at the time. He is and will probably always remain anonymous, and his thoughts that day will remain so with him. One of the most important photos of the modern world speaks well more than its thousand words, but none from the man actually featured.