In­ter­na­tional ef­forts saved the boys – and give the rest of us a rea­son to be hope­ful

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

A saga that has gripped so many be­gan al­most three weeks ago, when 12 boys and their foot­ball coach slipped into a cave in north­ern Thai­land to ex­plore one af­ter­noon, and were trapped by fast-ris­ing wa­ters. It ended yes­ter­day with the an­nounce­ment that all were now free and safe. As 13 fam­i­lies cel­e­brate, one more is mourn­ing: Sa­man Gu­nan, a former Thai navy diver, lost his life in the res­cue ef­fort. And while the boys are well enough to re­quest their favourite meal and not too much home­work, the months ahead will of­fer chal­lenges as daunt­ing in their way as the re­cent or­deal.

None­the­less, the ju­bi­la­tion around the world is real and heart­felt. This was a saga in its un­fold­ing: 18 days is a long time in a world of so­cial me­dia and rolling news; and they en­com­passed dim­ming hopes, a sud­den dis­cov­ery, and the race against time to save the boys and their coach. In myth and folk­lore, caves are both en­tic­ing and for­bid­ding, of­ten in­voked as the gate­way into an­other world; chil­dren stray­ing into jeop­ardy is an­other re­cur­rent theme. Yet what made this story so pow­er­ful and ab­sorb­ing was see­ing hu­man­ity at its best: this is a tale of in­no­cence pro­tected; of per­se­ver­ance against the odds and hero­ism in the face of dan­ger; above all, of tri­umph over de­spair.

It speaks to us un­usu­ally strongly now, as the an­tithe­sis of the worst we see all around us. The boys them­selves, with their coach’s en­cour­age­ment, have shown ex­tra­or­di­nary for­ti­tude. At a mo­ment of ris­ing di­vi­sion, the res­cue has been a model of in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion. US mil­i­tary per­son­nel, Bri­tish res­cue ex­perts and spe­cial­ists from China, Aus­tralia and Ja­pan have worked along­side the Thai au­thor­i­ties and peo­ple. In an era of greed, many in­volved are un­paid vol­un­teers. In an age of nar­cis­sism, they have shunned the spot­light. There has been very lit­tle show­boat­ing (though Don­ald Trump, whose ad­min­is­tra­tion has sep­a­rated so many chil­dren from their par­ents, made a late bid to take credit).

Nor has there been fin­ger-point­ing; even as she waited for her son to emerge, the mother of one 14-year-old player wrote to re­as­sure the coach: “No par­ents are an­gry with you at all, so don’t you worry about that.”

For Thai­land, this is about a na­tion unit­ing in con­cern and then de­light; for its lead­ers, a wel­come story of the cen­tre com­ing to the aid of its peo­ple. Na­tional sto­ries are never apo­lit­i­cal, and even less so when a coun­try is so frac­tured and still un­der the con­trol of a mil­i­tary junta. Out­siders, too, choose the sto­ries they want. By con­trast with the cave boys, the deaths of at least 41 Chi­nese tourists, in­clud­ing chil­dren, in a boat dis­as­ter in south­ern Thai­land have had strik­ingly lit­tle at­ten­tion.

The res­cue’s phys­i­cal com­plex­ity was matched by its moral sim­plic­ity: with no po­lit­i­cal de­bates or nar­row in­ter­ests at stake, ev­ery­one could root for the trapped boys – but many more chil­dren world­wide need help, and could have it at a frac­tion of this cost and ef­fort. The un­scrupu­lous can use such cases to over­shadow the needs of the vul­ner­a­ble else­where. The rest of us can al­low the rare good news to lull us into com­pla­cency, re­as­sur­ing us that some­one else will save the day, and things will turn out OK af­ter all.

But to be cyn­i­cal about this mis­sion would be a kind of a fail­ure too. The res­cue is a true in­spi­ra­tion: a pow­er­ful re­minder of what can be done when hu­mans over­come their fears, pull to­gether and put oth­ers first. In short, when they care. Twelve chil­dren were swal­lowed by the dark­ness last month. When they re-emerged into the light, they brought the rest of us with them.

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