I hope today you will forgive me a slight divergence from our normal task of delivering helpful information on the creation of the written word, but this week my mind had turned to history.
Thursday is my birthday, and a few days ago someone sent me a link with a series of birthday trivia—what bread cost when I was born, the price of a new car—and it included historical events that happened on June 4. Several of the events I was unaware of or didn’t remember. But one, I will never forget, as I watched it unfold on TV.
Twenty years ago, on my seventeenth birthday, as I waited for my father to pick me up to go see the third Indiana Jones movie, around the world from me a young man—of immeasurable bravery—stood his ground.
It was twenty years ago this week that the People’s Republic of China brought a violent end to the peaceful student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
For most of the people reading this post, the fight for your ability to think what you want and say what you want, was fought and won long before you were born. In my case (U.S.) the closest connection I have to many of them are the faces on my currency. As a young man it was difficult to understand the need to fight for such basic freedoms, and a world without those freedoms seemed abstract.
But watching as thousands of young Chinese put their lives second to the idea that they and their countrymen should be able to express their ideas, and seeing the brutal suppression of their protests, made it clear to those of us who were listening that the rights we take for granted are far from universal.
I’m a fanatic of free speech—the ACLU would consider me liberal on the subject. I can name many of the legal cases, decided over hundreds of years, that have codified my right to say what I want. But even I take them for granted—it’s inevitable when you’ve never had to fight for something.
But I’m not sure those of us who watched Tiananmen Square—who saw the Berlin Wall become irrelevant in a few short days—are able to overlook the rights the same way we did before June 4, 1989.
The West will never know how many people, students and soldiers, died at Tiananmen Square, but the number certainly reached into the hundreds—some say into the thousands. And we don’t know precisely what happened to the brave man who stared down a line of tanks (though most intelligence agencies report that he was tortured and killed). But we do know that in the 20 years since Tiananmen Square freedom has not come to the men and women who stood their ground.
It’s unfair to say the victims of Tiananmen Square died in vain, as their sacrifice gave a taste of freedom to more than 100,000 young Chinese—and freedom is a taste not easily forgotten.
But freedoms are like muscles—occasionally, they must be exercised or they will wither.
So this week, 20 years after 100,000 people you have never met, stood their ground and risked their lives for just a few moments of freedom, I challenge each of you to remember their fight by exercising your freedom. This week, stand up and say what others can’t.