Every so often, an event occurs that stands as a monument to the continuing struggle for human freedom and serves as a reminder to all who work for liberty that even when success seems farthest from reach, they can make a difference. Whether it is the Boston Tea Party, the storming of the Bastille, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or the assault on the Berlin Wall, such events are a vivid reminder that man has an undying desire to be free.
Of all these, however, there is one event that will stand alone as the simplest and yet most profound reminder not only of the universal desire for liberty but also of the power of a single individual. This event occurred on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese government massacred thousands of its own citizens in Tiananmen Square. As a column of tanks rolled down the ironically named Boulevard of Heavenly Peace, a lone man ran into the middle of the street and stood in front of the lead tank, preventing the entire column from moving. For one brief moment, the age-old historical struggle between the individual and the state was crystallized into the image of this one man standing perfectly erect, staring straight ahead, with the gun turret of a tank pointed at him. It is said that the quest for freedom is the struggle between the armed state with its ultimate resort to the power of a gun and the individual with often nothing more than his principles to defend him. Never before has one event so perfectly represented this struggle before the world, and never before has the power of principle and the impotence of force been more perfectly communicated.
To those who fight the daily battle for liberty on even the smallest, most inconspicuous, and sometimes apparently the most meaningless level, the actions of this man in Beijing should serve as an inspiration and a reminder that, though a single individual may seem powerless to change anything, the greatest success must always begin with someone who is willing to stand up and fight for what he believes. Where, after all, would the world be today were it not for the first American patriot who resisted British rule, the first Frenchman who stood up against the ancien régime, the first person who refused to comply with the Nazis’ plan to murder every Jew in Europe, or the first East European who demanded his freedom in the worst days of Communist tyranny?
At the time, it may have seemed to all of these people that they were engaged in a hopeless exercise, that the resistance of one man is nothing compared with the military and political power of a state. They acted not because they knew that they would win, for victory was far from certain, and not as part of a mass struggle against tyranny, for they were, at least initially, quite alone. They acted because they knew they were right, because they wanted to be free, and because they hoped that by taking a stand they would inspire others to do the same. History, of course, proved them correct in the long run–acting alone they not only inspired others but eventually proved victorious. The undeniable lesson of history is this: One person, backed only by the strength of his convictions, can make a difference; one man can change the world.