One of the most powerful images of the last few days of upheavel in Egypt is that of an Egyptian women kissing a riot policeman.
There is something inexplicable and impenetrable which any state cannot touch—whether it be a divine monarchy, an oligarchical democracy, a dictatorship, whatever.
One single act has the potency to destroy a tyrant; if not actually, then at least by symbolic subversion. To be human is to watch that humanity continuously knocked down by suppression, and the act cuts right to the core of what it means to be human. To commit the act against the gradual, incremental sort of suppression is especially surprising, because a sudden takeover awakens nearly everyone, whereas the incremental sort is more accurately described as a sort of morphine drip—and to awaken from this, it seems, is far more difficult.
That is not to say that Egyptians were unaware of their station in the 30 years of Mubarack rule, but things were more or less functional for three decades, until the crisis of markets unveiled the illusion. Tunisia was, naturally, instructive for the Egyptians as well.
Back to the act, though.
The symbolic act that can cripple tyrants overpowers the violent act. It is so ordinary that most of us forget its innate potency. With technology what it is, we can capture that moment and record it for all time. Display it in every far-flung corner of the globe and it has the electromagnetic force of a nuclear blast.
The act is one human kissing another.
In the photo above, an older activist in Egypt kisses a riot policeman—a man she probably does not know, though whom she identifies as human and not some monstrous instrument of the state. They say that the pen is mightier than the sword; but, this is not true. It should be amended to “the symbolic act of love is mightier than the state.” That this woman could sense the humanity in another human being wielded as an instrument, a weapon of the state, is far more powerful.
In that moment, the old women struck a blow to a regime: an act a thousand times more destructive than a bullet, a bomb or a molotov cocktail. And the understanding is written on the soldier’s face. He knows. He knows he was being asked by a tyrant to use force against his own people, and for no other reason than to preserve Mubarak’s power—a power preserved in part through U.S. aid.
It’s so perfect that it is beyond the power of words. It is, as Plato says, something universal that need only be remembered instead of understood. We know its power because we remember what is was from the shadowy recesses of our minds. It is an illustration that our shared humanity transcends the idea of the state.
No state on Earth has that sort of power: the power to render the tyrant and the state symbolically extinct.
The meaning and power of this photo reach far beyond Egypt’s borders, though. Mubarak is a dictator, but ample evidence exists that representative democracies are simply an army of pencil-pushing, opportunistic Mubaraks who revel in their own corruption by virtue of the business interests with whom they conspire, backed by a military who will do their bidding.
But that Egyptian woman proved that soldiers, when turned loose on their own people, know who they are firing upon, and they will not do it: not for one tyrant nor a thousand tyrants in a parliament. And what’s truly inspiring is that the Egyptian people have managed to do this all despite the U.S. government propping up Mubarak’s regime with billions of dollars in aid over the last 30 years.
Of course, it remains to be seen how the military and popular uprising will respond if Mubarak ultimately steps down, but for now that symbolic act of defiance is untouchable.