The Power of One

Twenty years ago today, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, one anonymous man stood in a street, alone and unarmed, before a column of approaching tanks. We don't know what he had witnessed in the previous day, when the student-led, pro-democracy revolution taking place in Tiananmen was put down by indiscriminate machine gun fire into crowds and the use of tanks as steamrollers to crush people. Almost certainly the man had seen tanks rolling full speed into the crowds of protestors.

And yet, he chose to make a stand in the street, utterly alone.
Some historians, especially those influenced by Marx, posit that individuals do not much matter to the progress of history. We are told that if Hitler had not risen to power, then some other radical would have exploited the post-war chaos of Germany in the same way. And had Churchill not marshaled Britain to stay in the war during the darkest days, then some other politician would have. This Marxist view of history is, of course, speculative and cannot be disproven--a fact which hardly supports its thesis. The Marxist Chinese authorities must have philosophically assumed that an individual could not make a revolution. 
But those who understand the deeper flow of history know that individuals do matter. It mattered that Churchill and Hitler, as persons, engaged each other rather than other players. Almost any other politician would have settled with Hitler rather than continue what seemed like a hopeless war; almost any other tyrant would have had the sense of self-preservation not to invade Russia with the western front still unsettled. Individuals, it turns out, matter more than the masses.
It mattered that this unknown man found the suicidal courage to halt a column of tanks. For when revolution eventually comes to the tyrants who still rule China, as it inevitably must, then I think this man will stand again as the symbol of the democratic hope that was tragically crushed on that day twenty years ago. 
We have the Statue of Liberty. China will have one man before a tank.


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