reading the signs

The Thai Cave Rescue Cannot Save Us From National Shame

In the past month, an epic humanitarian crisis utterly transfixed America: the plight of a group of children stranded in a place entirely alien to them, cut off from the outside world, and with no idea of how — or if — they’d ever see their families again. The children had no place to bathe or sleep, and barely any food. At night, cold and frightened, they slept on rock-hard floors. Every day they grew weaker. Every day their desperate parents grew more frantic, praying for a miracle.

Such was the situation in Thailand for several long weeks, and America breathlessly kept up with the story via round-the-clock media coverage. We studied diagrams of the cave, agonized over dropping oxygen levels, the coming monsoons. We empathized with the parents’ agonizing wait. We seemed to be living the crisis in real time, minute by minute, with its victims.

When we learned that all 12 kids and their coach had been successfully — astonishingly — saved, we rejoiced: The entire world had come together — sparing no expense — to avert a great tragedy.

On one level, our fascination with the Thai soccer team seems perfectly understandable: It was a riveting, even cinematic story. But there is more to America’s weeks-long obsession with this event than simple human interest. In fact, the saga of the lost Thai boys mirrors uncannily the situation of the thousands of migrant children being held in unspecified detention centers throughout our country.

Incredibly, these two humanitarian crises unfolded at the same time, both involving lost, stranded, desperate children unable to reunite or communicate with their families. Both involved a looming threat of permanent loss — of death, of families destroyed, of grave illness or injury. But at least we had information about the Thai children: We had photos and video and interviews with experts. Every child’s name and age was known. And we knew that the finest minds in the world were at work on the problem, that America was stepping up: the U.S. government sent military personnel to help. Our own tech guru, Elon Musk, had even dreamed up fantastical, sci-fi miniature submarines to save the kids (although these were not used, ultimately).

And so, as agonizing as the story in Thailand was, we felt reassured that the world, including our own country, was responding kindly, rationally, humanely. For all its inherent despair and anxiety, the situation made sense: Innocent children were in danger and families were suffering. In response, decent, smart people were trying their utmost to help them.

Focusing on the Thai children, we permitted ourselves many of the emotions we continually push aside in the case of these migrant children, because at least the grief and despair we felt were untainted by shame and guilt. No vicious crime or racist disregard had placed those children in the cave. It was an accident. And however terrifying their predicament, we could feel the world rooting for a happy outcome.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the 2,000+ migrant children and babies currently languishing in their own version of remote caves. They did not stumble into those centers; they were sent there deliberately, with no exit plan.

And oddly, we have far less intel on those American child-detention centers than we did on a flooded cave deep underground in Thailand. We have no videos of toddlers being herded into cages. No diagrams of their living conditions. And where on Earth are the experts working on the puzzle of matching parents up with their missing children? Elon Musk won’t be called in on this one, nor will any other geniuses, because our government is not actively seeking solutions to ease the suffering, which it has intentionally inflicted.

No wonder we focused on the Thai children’s crisis instead of the one in our own country.

The story of the Thai soccer team rescue is cause for joyous celebration: It reminds us of humanity’s capacity for empathy and compassion, of the power of perseverance, hope, and critical intelligence.  It also provides a kind of corrected image of our current, ongoing crisis. The only difference between those migrant children, stranded thousands of miles from their homes and families and the Thai kids trapped in a cave lies in how we frame and perpetuate their stories. It is urgent that we train as bright and persistent a light on the migrant children as we did on those soccer players. To do so may dredge up our own shame and guilt along with anxiety and despair. So be it.

The Thai Cave Rescue Cannot Save Us From National Shame