Life and Death: The Tank Man and Rachel Corrie

An unidentified man survives his blocking of a line of tanks heading to Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (Photo: AP, Jeff Widener)

The court decision in Israel, which exonerated the driver of a huge bulldozer in the death of activist Rachel Corrie, recalls a previous confrontation between man and machine: the 1989 stance of a Chinese citizen before a tank squadron moving toward Tiananmen Square. 

Chronologically and physically displaced, these two events have similar characteristics—one person preventing mayhem by standing firm before those who are prepared to cause violence against others. They have identical beginnings but different endings—one ending with a smile and relief, the other with declamation and grief.

Comparing the two events demonstrates how conjecture becomes a historical fact and then is periodically resurrected to direct thoughts in a specific direction, and how history, which should educate, is purposely ignored.

What do we know about the "tank man?"

The answer is nothing, absolutely nothing. The well-dressed hero, holding a bag in his hands, never disclosed his identity or intentions. No posters, reference to any cause or any form of identification accompanied his short act. If he had a special purpose, it can be assumed that somewhere in time, he would have clandestinely revealed his agenda. Although clever investigation of videos could have probably identified him, the Chinese did not bother and apparently regarded him as a crank, which he could have been. There is no evidence to conclude he was defiantly demonstrating against the government, was a daredevil, was tempting fate or was a plant by the Chinese to prove the People's Army's restraint. Any of the above could have been true. Most likely, he was a demonstrator, and if so, a spontaneous one; demonstrators don't usually carry their groceries with them or get dressed as if going to work.

The Tank Man's defiant act occurred after the clashes in the streets close to Tiananmen had ended and the students had vacated Tiananmen Square. Because the battles were over, there wasn't much he could accomplish. The People's Army showed restraint and regard for life. No harm was done to the man. Videos of the event show that ordinary civilians tugged him away; he was not detained by undercover agents.

How has this event been treated?

The Tank Man has been given a special place as a symbol of the Tiananmen student movement. It is not his story but an embellished story, which has been distorted over time. Every June 5, the famous photographs are circulated throughout U.S. media and used, together with slogans, to impress citizenry with the defiance and heroism of the Tiananmen encampment and with ugly violence committed by the Chinese authorities. All of this makes interesting reading, but is opposite to the actual occurrence.

From what is known, the caption under the photograph may as well be "Chinese restraint." Yet note the manner by which the conventional media is able to reinforce to the public that the Tank Man, who had no violence committed against him, is made to appear a victim, with the People's Army deserving condemnation.

What do we know about Rachel Corrie's fatal day?

Rachel Corrie expressed sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian people. The American activist specifically demonstrated against the bulldozing of a Palestinian house in the Gaza strip in 2003 and confronted the machine, driven by an Israeli military preparing to demolish the home. The bulldozer ran against her and killed her. The history of this event is well defined.

Not well defined is the exact role of the IDF driver in Rachel Corrie's death. Israeli military replied to a lawsuit brought by the parents of Rachel Corrie by clearing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of any wrongdoing. The IDF investigation validated the bulldozer driver's claim that he had not seen the 23-year-old nonviolent activist—who was wearing a fluorescent vest—before his vehicle crushed her. Published images and cockpit transmission from the D-9 bulldozer driver to the watchtower cast doubt on the Israeli court decision.

The driver exclaims, "I hit an object." The tower responds, "I think the object got hit by the dobby and he is in severe condition." The driver answers, "What about him? You saw him? Did you see the object." The tower says, "Yes, I saw him. I think he is dead."

Both the driver and tower knew that Rachel Corrie was somewhere in front of the bulldozer. It is possible that the driver could not see her at times or was not looking in her direction. It is not possible that the tower could not see her. After all, they saw her silent body lying in front of the bulldozer. Why did the tower not signal the driver to stop?

The driver also shows his inhumanity by designating "him" as an "object."

Israeli personnel did not show interest in approaching the body hit by the IDF machine or caring to confirm Rachel Corrie's condition.

Molding of minds

The two events expose the molding of minds, predominantly in the United States. Although the Tiananmen uprising occurred in 1989 and China has progressed in socio-economics, a small band of neocons and China bashers continue to promote an annual exposition of the incident, preventing reconciliation and encouraging hatred.

Rachel Corrie lives in history as a valid international symbol of protest against injustice. Although almost all the world, from Tierra del Fuego to Murmansk, rails at Israel's oppressive treatment of the Palestinian people, portrayal of the oppression swings the other way in the United States. A monument to Corrie's sacrifice could serve as a tribute to her bravery and as a reminder to the criminal behavior of those who commit injustice. Where to place the monument? How about the White House lawn?

Dan Lieberman is editor of Alternative Insight,, a commentary on foreign policy and politics. He is author of the book "A Third Party Can Succeed in America" and the Kindle "The Artistry of a Dog." He can be reached at