Editorial: Chile and the human spirit

Rare are incidents that attract international media attention for their power to instill wonder and joy.

311_Chile miners celebration (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Chile miners celebration
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The saga of Chile’s 33 miners has riveted the world’s attention as few stories with such a happy ending do. News outlets around the globe knew instinctively that the successful rescue of the miners deserved prominent exposure. The conclusion of the subterranean drama dominated front pages – including of this paper – and the top slot of TV and radio news programs.
Normally cynical and critical, the vast majority of news commentators dared not raise the possibility that something might go wrong. Inevitably, the rescue was compared to the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in July 1969.
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Rare are the incidents that attract international media attention for their power to instill wonder and joy, rather than horror and trepidation. In this context NASA’s assistance in supplying design requirements for the extraction capsule that carried the men to safety was fitting.
The Chilean miners’ plight contained all the elements of a good story, particularly the triumph of the human spirit over fatalism. The Chilean government insisted on devoting all available resources to the rescue, despite the always-present risk of failure and dashed hopes. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out, the story of the miners is telling proof that bonds between human beings go beyond cost-benefit analysis.
The idea of forfeiting those 33 men as an unavoidable expense, incurred in the endeavor to extract copper and gold from deep down within the earth, was never even contemplated. These were human beings. Chile’s stubborn insistence on rescuing them no matter the cost or the trouble set priorities right.
All of humanity instinctively understood and identified with this. Doing so made them feel good. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu put it, by showing how it values life, Chile has become an “inspiration” for the world.
Some have taken an admonishing approach to the media focus. For instance, Daniel Pauvif, a local Roman Catholic priest, was critical of the news media for overlooking the “real” story, namely the miners’ faulty work conditions. Instead, he complained, they appealed to base emotions, focusing exclusively on the human interest angle. He lamented reports that families had cut secret deals with big media in the US and Europe to provide exclusive rights to their experiences being trapped for 69 days 700 meters underground.
“This has become a spectacle that is revealing human weakness,” Pauvif told The New York Times. “It is making them open to asking for money for interviews. Some have ceded to temptation.”
The media did indeed focus on the individual lives of the miners. There was Esteban Rojas, 44, who soon after surfacing vowed to give his wife of 25 years the church wedding she deserved, while Yonny Barrios, 50, faced the embarrassing prospect of being met by his mistress while his wife stood by visibly slighted.
But understanding the foibles – and the strengths – of the miners is precisely what made them so human and thus so intriguing for all of us. It is precisely at these times that all citizens of the world can forget their many differences (cultural, religious, historical), at least temporarily, and unite in a collective outpouring of human empathy.
THERE WAS also the familiar local phenomenon of looking for the Israeli or Jewish angle in every international event, whether it was the intentional publication of excerpts from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 1987 book Terrorism: How the West Can Win that “foresaw” international attention being drawn to a small group of miners trapped in a mine; or reports that Israeli doctors might have had a role, no matter how minor, in advising the Chileans how to maintain the health of the trapped miners; or that Chilean Jewish mining executive Leonardo Farkas gave $10,000 to each of the 33 miners, more than they earn in a year. Perhaps this shows our refusal to accept Israel’s normalcy, a vestige of our tradition of choseness.
Chileans’ own spontaneous outbursts of national pride – the repeated singing of the national anthem as the miners were brought up one by one – was a testimony to the very human phenomenon of patriotism and the need to belong.
Ultimately, the miners’ rescue is a study in the capacity for peoples from diverse backgrounds and cultures to recognize that what ties them together is often just as significant as what makes them unique.