Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Tank Man Today: Shades of Irony

I’ve not, so far, talked about l’affaire Edward Snowden except in passing in another article, and I do not expect to talk about him in detail in future. In any case, any regular reader of mine will be able to surmise exactly where I stand on that topic.

However, my attention was drawn to a cartoon that appeared at the time Snowden was in China, and was taken apart by one of my own favourite cartoonists, Ted Rall. It was a take on the old Tank Man picture from the Tiananmen Square “protests” of 1989, and depicts Snowden standing in front of a line of Chinese tanks. A voice from the lead tank says, “Why, sure, you can count on us to protect your civil liberties, Mr Snowden.”

The (intended) subtext is clear: Snowden has run to a nation which tramples on civil liberties, or, to be more exact, grinds them under tank tracks. It’s so obvious a subtext that only someone totally uninformed would miss it – or else someone well-informed enough to see through the sham.

Part of the latter informed view was voiced by Rall himself, who commented :[1]

“...China really did look out for Snowden, protecting him in a special police-run district and then permitting him to leave despite America’s...move...of annulling his passport.”

Actually, though, it goes way beyond that.

Now, I’m a bit of an authority on the Tank Man photo. I analysed it, after all, in excruciating detail in an article I wrote on the so-called Tiananmen Square “massacre”. Part of what I had to say is as follows (the whole analysis of the photograph is much longer and is available at the link):[2]

“It’s called one of the “100 most famous photographs of all time”; actually, there are several versions of the photo, and there’s a video of the episode as well, which has its own peculiar significance. Taken on the morning of 5th June 1989, it shows a lone man, in white shirt and dark trousers, with what seems to be shopping bags in his hands. He stands in front of a line of tanks. In the most well-known version, that taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, there are four tanks. In other photos, taken from further away, there are more tanks behind those four. They are Chinese Type 59 tanks, with the crew “buttoned up” inside; i.e. the hatches shut. 

As seen in the video, the man gestures angrily to the tank with his bags. The tank swerves to one side in order to drive around him. The man steps again in front of the tank, and the heavy vehicle again tries to steer around him. Finally, it stops, and the man clambers on it, has a brief exchange with the crew, and descends. As the tank tries to drive on, he again steps in front of it and again it stops. People from the crowd then pull the man to safety and the tanks drive on (this last bit is typically excised from videos of this episode posted on such sites as YouTube).

According to the standard mythology of the event, one so standard that it’s practically sacrilege not to believe it, the man displayed almost unbelievable courage in the face of overwhelming Chinese military aggression. This “lone hero” became an instant icon, known as the “Tank man” and a symbol of courage worldwide.

...Now, if we look at the video, we see the tank shifting to the right and back again in an effort to avoid the man. If the Chinese troops had already shot and crushed down hundreds to thousands of unarmed civilians, and according to standard mythology they were, even on this 5th of June, shooting students trying to re-enter the Square, why would the tank have gone to such trouble to save the life of one miserable counter-revolutionary? There can be no reasonable explanation but the fact that  that the tankers were exercising the maximum restraint in the face of provocation."
Therefore, whatever you believe about the rest of the events surrounding the so-called Tiananmen Square Massacre, this much is undeniable: the Tank Man episode does not depict military brutality. It, instead, depicts Chinese armoured forces going out of their way not to hurt or kill a single isolated demonstrator. Seen in that light, the cartoon is ironically true – in a way its cartoonist never intended.

Then, there’s this interesting little fact that in 1989 the Tank Man was called “heroic” for standing up to armour. Now imagine if there were major domestic disturbances in a Western “democracy” today, attempting to overthrow a government deemed tyrannical by a section of the population.  Now, imagine that troops/National Guards were called out to quell these disturbances. Suppose an unarmed demonstrator were to step out in the path of one of these columns of troops, moreover, carrying bags in his hands, bags which might contain petrol bombs like other demonstrators have used to burn troops alive.[2] What would happen to him?

I’ll give you the likely answer in two words: Rachel Corrie.[3] And she wasn’t even armed, nor was there any kind of demonstration going on.

But let’s assume he’s not run down. Let’s accept that the armour stops instead, and waits for him to get out of the way.  But, let’s then posit that he climbs on top of the lead vehicle, apparently in an attempt to talk to the crew. He’s still carrying his shopping bags with him, bags which for all the crew knows might contain Molotov Cocktails or explosives. What would the crew do under these circumstances? Wouldn’t they be justified in assuming their safety came first?

Either way, the answer is the same: if Tank Man had attempted his stunt in a “liberal Western democracy” today, where one can be chased down and killed on the Underground[4] for the crime of having brown skin and “looking Arab”, for instance, he’d have been toast. And the crew would not only have been able to have got away with killing him, they would have been criticised for recklessly endangering themselves if they hadn’t blown him away. What he might or might not actually have had in his shopping bags, or whether he might be mentally disturbed[2], would be immaterial.

And, of course, after they’d killed him, they’d have called him a terrorist. Or a terrorist-sympathiser, which amounts to the same thing.

I’ll leave it to your imagination what would have happened if Tank Man had tried his thing in Until-Recently-Occupied Iraq, Still-Occupied Palestine, or Occupied Afghanistan. How things change according to time and circumstance.

Irony isn’t dead, after all.



  1. Bill, All of these so-called 'iconic' photos of events of this type are suspicious. Here in Turkey, there is one of the police pepper gassing a 'woman in red' at the Gezi Park protests. That and another photo immediately attained iconic status as the ultimate symbol of the protests. The other photo, however, called the 'woman in black,' was of a woman getting sprayed with water from one of the pressurized water tanks. It turned out that she was an Australian who later stated to the press that when the pressurized water tanks came down the street and everyone else ran, she could see that it would be a good photo up and deliberately stood in front of the tank and, of course, got blasted. Then it went on social media, went 'viral,' and so on.

    We could do nothing but think that indeed, what with the militarization of the police worldwide, all of the tsk-tsking and huffing coming from the EU and the U.S. about Turkey's denying the protestors' democratic right to protest was so much hypocritical smoke. All of the police go to the same school, learn the same tactics and have the same toys so the "We're better than you" posturing of these hypocrites from the 'western democracies' is nauseating.

  2. Bill,
    As to what would happen is a "liberal" western country, I agree 100%. He'd be killed, immediately. No questions asked, ever, not by the "press" nor the government.


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