Friday, June 04, 2004


I can't remember exactly how old I was and I don't care to do the math, but I do remember seeing tanks crushing peaceful protesters on June 4, 1989 in Tianamen Square. I didn't really know all the details about the politics at play and what specifically was being protested or really very much about Chinese history, but the image will never leave me. This was the moment for me when black and white faded into grey.

I heard so many people after 9/11 saying that it had opened their eyes to how horrible people can be, to what aweful things humans are capable of doing to other humans. I heard people expressing shock and horror and disgust that anyone could have done such evil things. I was shocked that it happened, thought it was horrible and was completely disgusted; but I was not suprised that people could or would show such disregard for human life. I had seen it before. I thought everyone else had too.

It isn't only that protesters were killed in Tianamen that stuck with me. The horrible images stuck and haunted me, but what really left me troubled was how little people cared. It was someone else, they could have moved, they should have known it would happen, they are different, they aren't like us, blah blah blah etc. Anything to justify not paying much attention. Anything to not care too much. As a nation we sat and watched, but did we really bear witness to it?

I don't know what is was about that tragedy that hit me so hard. I felt like the Challenger explosion was kind of over-done. It was an accident and awful and tragic, but really the only difference between it and a wreck on the highway was altitude and the number of witnesses. Maybe that is the difference, that Tianamen wasn't an accident. The Chinese government didn't accidentally run people over with tanks, didn't accidentally fire machine guns into thick crowds. Someone pulled that trigger on purpose and not in defense or even revenge and that forever seared into my mind. Ever since no crime has ever shocked me. Grossed me out, made me sad, angry, scared: yes. But shocked? No.

One more thing about Tianamen: it never stuck me as something that 'the Chinese government' or 'Communists' did. It struck me that people did it. It might as well have happened down the street. There were no adjectives in my mind describing the slain or the slayers, they were all just people. I was more horrified to realize that in a different place or time, that could have been me... beneath the tank tracks or behind the wheel. I have been careful to stay out of the way of tanks ever since. And to watch where I park my tank.

Would I not watch the footage of that day if I could go back and change the channel? Would I just turn away and not look again? Whether it is Tianamen Square or 9/11 or whatever opened that painful awareness in each of us, I think we answer that question everyday: do you turn away now? Sometimes you have to, I certainly can't let myself take it all in: awareness IS painful. But I still would watch, still do watch. Awareness may be painful, but ignorance is deadly.

1 comment:

d. earl griffin said...

Realizing that my memories of Tianamen were pieced together from the recollections of a child, I have gone back and reread reports of what happened in the protests.

The man in front of the tank wasn't crushed by it and the protest was a stand off for a few days. The killing seems to have been done mostly with machine guns. More generic and less cinematic, and somewhat confused with the juxtaposition of the image of the man in front of the tank and the reports of the massacre, but chilling none the less.

The moment still stands as a turning point in my world view and a reminder of what we, all of us, are capable of if we don't reject that violent potential. And if we don't avert our eyes from witnessing and remembering. So I will leave the post as is, with only the caveat that I am aware of the history of the event and the potential confusion that this exposition of the feelings it engendered and my recollection of it may cause.