There was no villain in Thailand.
It’s this thread that ties our favorite rescue stories together: the 12 soccer players in the flooded cave these past weeks, the miners in a collapsed cavern in Chile eight summers ago, the 18-month-old girl in a well way back in 1987.
These tales went viral, the first of them long before “viral” meant what it means today. CNN covered them around the clock, newspapers splashed them on the front page, do-gooders offered to do good however they could — a man born without collarbones who said he could collapse his shoulders to go down the well, the group that gathered to pray at Campamento Esperanza in the desert near the mine, Elon Musk with his miniature submarine. And the rest of us watched, and watched, and watched.
This time around, the watching ticked some folks off. Why, demanded a cohort of commentators, aren’t we spending these resources on further coverage of the children ripped from their families at the border?
The easiest answer is that, amid a deluge of grimness, we’re starved for good news stories. But there’s something more to it: The reason rescue stories such as these are so purely good in the first place is they’re not sagas of man vs. man or man vs. society. They’re stories of man vs. nature. And that means no one is to blame.
It wasn’t the policy of any administration to send rain crashing from the sky as a soccer team embarked on a postgame exploration of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave. No malicious actor clapped his hands to cause an avalanche in the San José Mine (though the survivors did eventually call for action against the mine’s owners). Baby Jessica wasn’t pushed down that well.
It’s easier for everyone to come together over an event when it features only human heroism, without human evil to countervail it. And usually, there’s some evil around. We wouldn’t be celebrating Saudi women getting the right to drive if decades of oppression hadn’t kept them away from the wheel. The #MeToo movement wouldn’t be so inspiring if there were nothing to move against. The teacher or churchgoer or reporter who throws herself in front of a shooter to protect someone else is a profile in courage, but she wouldn’t have had to be brave at all if a man hadn’t shown up with a gun.
Every story of a mother reunited with her children is as heart-rending as it is heartwarming.
The rescue stories are different. Not only are they occurring without some fatal failing to set them off, but they’re also an example of humanity triumphing over powers we usually can’t control. An ineffable force of nature put people in terrible predicaments, and another ineffable force — some strength or savvy or tireless spirit — got them out. In a way, it’s a very human victory. In another, it feels bigger than us.
“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what,” the Thai Navy SEALs said on Facebook after the extraction Tuesday.
There’s plenty of misfortune we can’t really explain, and plenty we can. Either way, when things start to feel hopeless, it’s comforting to imagine someone might eventually come to pull us out of whatever well we’re stuck in — no matter how poor the odds. It has happened before. It could happen again.