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It’s time to honor the unsung hero of Tiananmen Square

AP Photo
There are people who defy despots.
  • Miles Kimball
By Miles Kimball

Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

It is now 25 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 3 and 4, 1989. On this anniversary of that wretched event, it is right that we honor the man in the iconic picture who at least for a while stopped a column of tanks by putting himself in harm’s way. But let us also honor the man at the controls of the lead tank, who stopped that tank dead in its tracks to avoid crushing another human being. In the final analysis, despots and tyrants cannot impose their will on a country of any size without the help of many thugs and other amoral enforcers to do their dirty work for them.

Every time one person refuses to enforce evil, evil gets weaker.

When enough people refuse to enforce a particular brand of evil, that brand of evil falls. By contrast to China, where 1989 was a year of bleak disappointment for freedom, in Europe 1989 saw civil servants in Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia opening loopholes that let people leave East Germany for the West. Then on Nov. 9, Gunter Schabowski, the Communist party boss in East Berlin, interpreted ambiguous instructions to announce that the gates to West Berlin were open a day earlier than higher-ups intended. Finally, the unwillingness of guards and their immediate superiors at the Berlin Wall to authorize deadly force led to the destruction of that obstacle to human freedom. At every step of the way, numerous officials in East Germany tilted their decisions bit by bit in the direction of freedom.

Those of us lucky enough to live in (relatively) smoothly functioning democracies are sometimes too ready to think the cause of freedom is won in our land. But the cause of freedom has never fully gained victory as long as there continue to be illegitimate exercises of government power, even when those actions follow the forms of democratic decision-making. No exercise of government power can be legitimate if those pushing it forward know in their hearts that it is not good for the country and the world as a whole, but is only a way to advance some private interest. When those making decisions have honest disagreements about public goods, there must be a way to decide, and at this stage of human history, democracy is, as Winston Churchill said, the least bad of the available options for many, many decisions. But when no one thinks in his or her heart of hearts that a decision is good and right, it doesn’t matter how many votes that decision can get based on narrow self-interest, it is still wrong.

What of those who want to avoid a questionable exercise of government power, but are under orders to do so? For them, a simple litmus test is that they should not execute such orders unless they believe that those orders might be in the interests of the country and the world, with all due allowance for the fact that one might be mistaken in one’s own opinions that are contrary to the views of higher-ranked leaders. But whenever an officer of the government can see no possible way that a directive could be for the good of the country and the world, I would rather risk a bit of disarray that might result from his or her not obeying that directive than the wrong such an officer of government believes is certain if he or she does obey the directive.

For those who work for private employers rather than the government, disobeying a directive to do wrong should be an easy decision, but often is not, because of the personal sacrifices involved in defying an employer. Human weakness is understandable, but for many, developing broadly valuable job skills and putting away a little savings can help reduce the temptation to do wrong. That is, if one can avoid depending on a particular job too much, then one is less likely to be tempted to save one’s own hide, financially speaking, by being a party to the furthering of evil. New doctors take an oath to do no harm. If we each vow not to do clear evil even when the powers that be urge us to help them in their corrupt and twisted designs, the world will be a better place.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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