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Life and Death - The Tank Man and Rachel Corrie

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 had identical beginnings but different endings; one ending with a smile and relief, the other ending with declamation and grief.

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

Start with the famous "tank man"; what do we know about him? 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 of heroism. If he had a special purpose, it can be assumed that somewhere in time, he would have revealed his agenda clandestinely. 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 well have been. There is no evidence to conclude he was either demonstrating defiantly against the government, was a daredevil, was tempting fate or was a plant by the Chinese government to prove the Peoples Army's restraint. Any of the above could have been true. Most likely, he was a demonstrator, and a spontaneous one, as demonstrators don't usually carry their groceries with them or get dressed as if going to work.

That is what we don't know. What do we know?

(1) 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.
(2) The Peoples Army showed restraint and regard for life. No harm was done to the man.
(3) Videos of the entire event definitely show that ordinary civilians tugged him away; he was not detained by undercover agents.

How has this event been treated?

The perpetrator (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 is transformed from histrionic to historical. Every June 5, the famous photographs are circulated throughout the US 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 shown in the photographs and the video of the bold, likable and adventurous 'Tank man." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qq8zFLIftGk)

As mentioned previously, this is only an interesting story and a collection of award winning photographs. This is not history.

History succeeds from established facts and not rumours or assumptions. Occurring on June 5, after Chinese troops had already emptied Tiananmen Square, it is not an inspiration to all those who have died or gone home. The only historically known fact from the video is that the Peoples Army showed restraint and regard for human life. It's well known that newspapers receive photographs and caption the images as they please. From what was known, the caption under the photograph could use the words Chinese restraint and more accurately describe the entire episode.

Note the manner by which the conventional media is able to reinforce to the public that the "Tank Man", who has no violence committed against him, is made to appear to be a victim and the Peoples Army deserves condemnation. It's a perfect example of conditioning, of impressing constantly upon open minds who is 'good' and who is 'bad', until the mind reacts automatically to any image that displays the 'good' and 'bad'.  

What do we know about Rachel Corrie's fatal day? Rachel expressed sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian people. The American activist demonstrated specifically against the bulldozing of a Palestinian house in the Gaza strip in 2003 and confronted the armoured machine, driven by an Israeli soldier who was ready to demolish the home. The bulldozer crushed and killed the young woman. The history of this event is well defined.

Not so well defined is the exact role of the Israel Defence Forces driver in Rachel Corrie's death. The Israeli military replied to a lawsuit brought by her parents by clearing the IDF of any wrongdoing. The army's own investigation validated the bulldozer driver's claim that he had not seen the 23-year-old non-violent activist from Olympia, Washington, who wore a fluorescent vest, before his vehicle crushed her. Published images and cockpit transmission from the D-9 bulldozer driver to the watch tower (http://www.youtube.com/verify_age?next_url=/watch%3Fv%3DZjuweNjJwrk) cast doubts on the Israeli court decision.

The driver exclaims, "I hit an object."
The watch 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 didn't the tower signal the driver to stop?

Bulldozers hit objects all the time. That is what they are designed to do. This "object" did not stop the bulldozer from performing its operations. So, why was it important for the driver to inform the tower that he had "hit an object"? It's obvious that he knew that he had hit a person. If so, why didn't he stop and get out?

The tower "think(s) the object got hit by the dobby", as if it was an inanimate thing, and then concludes, "he is in severe condition". Why did the tower 'think' when the tower knew? And why use the word 'object' when the object was clearly identified as a person (he)? The self-proclaimed "most humane military in the world" identified a deceased human being as an object.

The driver shows his inhumanity by also designating 'him' as an 'object'.
The tower confirms complicity by replying "Yes, I saw him. I think he is dead." Neither Israeli personnel showed interest in approaching the body hit by the IDF machine or cared to confirm Rachel Corrie's condition.

The two events expose the moulding of minds, predominantly in America. Although the Tiananmen uprising occurred in 1989, and China has progressed since in socio-economics, a small band of neo-cons and China bashers continue to promote an annual exposition of the incident, preventing reconciliation and encouraging hatred. Although almost all the world, from Tierra del Fuego to Murmansk, rails at Israel's oppressive treatment of the Palestinian people, a small band of from the religious right and Israel supporters determine America's Middle East attitudes and polices.

The Tank Man lives in spectacle, with some political significance, similar to those who confronted police during the final years of the Vietnam War. Random viewing of his courageous and defiant deed is warranted. Rachel Corrie lives in history, as an international and eternal symbol of protest against injustice. She cannot be allowed to have died in vain. A monument to her sacrifice and an annual tribute for her bravery will serve as a reminder to the criminal behaviour of those who commit injustice. Where should such a monument be located? How about the White House lawn?

Dan Lieberman is editor of Alternative Insight, www.alternativeinsight.com, a commentary on foreign policy and politics. He is author of the book A Third Party Can Succeed in America and a Kindle: The Artistry of a Dog.
Dan can be reached at
[email protected]

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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