A brief contemplation on a captured moment.

You will all have seen the picture of the man standing in front of the tanks near Tiananmen Square. (Those of you who haven’t are probably also not seeing this post. What a coincidence!) What you may not have seen is one of the shots prior to this moment, captured by Terril Jones, which shows the Unknown Rebel (Tank Man) standing patiently, well before the tanks reached him. If you look at the picture, you’ll see him on the vertical midline, just left of centre, with his trousers hitched awkwardly and holding two shopping bags. As far as we know, from this point on, he stops the column, walks in front of the tanks to stop them, climbs on, chats to some of the people on the tank, gets down, blocks them again and is then seized by two men and propelled into the crowd.

(C) Terril Jones. Low quality image used for reference.

This photograph is important. This clearly shows that this action was not spur of the moment – Tank Man didn’t rush out of the crowd – but it also shows the mundanity of the whole scene. Tanks are rolling in the street but, from what it looks like, this man is on his way back from the shops. The bags were never used against the tanks and they’re not exactly military issue. The most likely explanation is that this is someone who, walking back from the shops around lunchtime, possibly with lunch for his colleagues or food for his family, saw the people fleeing Tiananmen square, heard the tanks and suddenly realised that he was going to have to stand in front of them and stop them advancing.

I have had two moments in my life where I have realised that I am about to try and disarm someone with a knife. Both of them were terrifying as hell but both of them required action. Fortunately for me, both people had little idea what they were doing and I managed to avoid getting hurt, which means that (a) I was profoundly lucky and (b) do not recommend this course to anyone. However, sometimes, you just realise that something has to happen and that you are going to be the person who does it. But actions on this scale (taking on a stream of Type 59 Chinese tanks) defy standard human reaction and are almost completely incomprehensible.

Many theories have been advanced about Tank Man’s actions. Was he mentally unstable? Well, this is hardly the action we’d expect of a sane man, certainly. But he seems so unprepared and so determined at the same time. He hasn’t even put the bags down to adjust his trousers! My belief is that this man is completely sane, except that he is about to do something that, by any definition, is crazy. We can’t ask Tank Man because he has never shown up again. Anywhere.

Any number of us, when faced with a much less challenging situation, would have looked at the shopping bags and thought “well, I can’t stop, the food will get cold/ice cream will melt/meat will spoil” and conveniently decamped in the direction that the two foreground sprinters are indicating. And that is completely reasonable! I have said before that I can admire the actions of people and yet not even begin to comprehend how they can set themselves with such resolve in the face of terrible things.

We talk about ethics, we teach ethics and, all too often, we discover that while our students can write down the differences between Kantian Maxims and Benthamite Utilitarianism, they still cheat on tests or copy work because they haven’t actually learned how to act ethically. The Tank Man, for me, is an example of the resolute commitment to one’s beliefs that we are really hoping for in all of this ethical teaching. This picture confirms the premeditation that was required – can you imagine how much resolve it took to stand there as tens of tanks rumbled towards you? I’ve been in the Armoured Corps and tanks are big, scary and loud. If I wasn’t in one, I wouldn’t want to be near them because they could crush you like a bug and not even notice. What we see in the picture above is resolve, despite having bags in your hand and slightly baggy trousers. The mundane transformed into something far less ordinary.

The shot itself is also far from ordinary both by intention and by accident. Accidentally, I believe, the photographer has captured true opposites in the shot and given it a spectacular level of contrast. On the left hand side, you have a man who is prepared to stand in front of tanks and not move. On the right is a sign bearing the Chinese character for ‘Yield’.

Not something that the Unknown Rebel was planning to do that day.

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