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Phoenix Rising

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Saturday, October 16, 2010

It was one of those moments. My son, a would-be engineer, saw it as a triumph of the very spirit of engineers: the can-do, we-can-solve-anything guts and genius that could figure out how to keep 33 men alive for two months while forging a plan to hoist them up from half a mile underground in a bullet-shaped device linked to a pulley.

I still don't know how they did it, but that wasn't what kept me glued to my computer screen. I couldn't understand a word they were saying, much less the mechanics.

For me, it was more a religious experience than a scientific one.

At a time when we see the value of human life cheapened every day -- when thugs would kidnap a woman aid worker who spent her life (and lost it) trying to help others, when suicide bombers target innocent people, when every day brings news of horrors and threats too awful to contemplate -- the world watched and wept as 33 men were pulled to freedom.

That is the world I want to live in, the world I pray my children will live in.

There was much talk about how the new president of Chile had staked his future on this rescue, how his advisers had told him not to promise too much, not to get caught creating expectations he couldn't meet. Politics. What else is new?

President Sebastian Pinera did it anyway. To quote my old friend Jesse Jackson, he kept hope alive.

Hope triumphed over politics and budgets and naysayers. Experts from around the world pitched in. Thirty-three lives commanded the best and the brightest. This is what human life is worth.

Thirty-three men thrown together by disaster formed a different kind of social network. No "Lord of the Flies." No survival of the fittest. No every man for himself.

"No one wants to be first," someone said of the discussion of the miners about the order of rescue. Last was the position of honor, reserved for the leader.

The men in that mine were not rich or famous; this is a job for those who don't have better ones. Had they perished, few of us would have stopped to think about it, much less learn their names. We see it every day. If it bleeds, it leads. Terror alert levels. Senseless killings. More at 11.

And then there is a moment when the better angels triumph, when the president of Chile waves the flag of Bolivia as a Bolivian, trapped on his fifth day in the mine, is pulled to freedom while his young wife stands waiting for him at the top.

There are days when I wonder what has become of us. It's ugly out there, we say to each other. Man's inhumanity to man. Anniversaries of horror. People made famous for their hate. Kids without hope ending their lives. Sickness and sadness, cruelty and indifference.

Hard hats on their hearts, the Chileans sang their national anthem after the last man was rescued. The world let out a collective sigh of relief. The engineering worked.

This is what it means -- what it should mean -- to be human. In God's image, at our best. The strength and courage of the 33 are a gift to the world, ours to cherish or discard, ours to hold on to, to remind us that, yes, we are capable of something like this. This is what it means to have a soul.

It was a good week for the world. God bless.

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