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Through summer's low points, a view of us at our best

The wreckage of what once was TWA Flight 800, while reluctant to give up its secrets, has lots to say about life in the late 20th century. While it represents a major tragedy, it can also, paradoxically, remind us how great we are, how far we've come, how spectacular our potential.

Considering that barely a century ago we couldn't get off the ground, to be able to lift this mammoth machine into the air and move it at such speed is a wonder of the world. That impossible tangle of cables and engines and wheels and fuselage was, not long ago, tens of thousands of pieces that worked in unison like clockwork, an amazing feat.

While our scientists wonder at recent faint hints of life on Mars, there is ample evidence in New York Harbor of how far life on Earth has advanced. And how far there is yet to go.

It takes only one criminal or one nut or one politician with a terrorist agenda to negate the achievements of thousands or millions: one or a few too far out of step with the rest of us who trudge uncertainly to the beat of our different drummers.

Life on Earth crept slowly for tens of thousands of years, then in the past century or two, picked up the pace. When you move that fast, there are likely to be stragglers. The entire human family, itself swollen from overpopulation, has not as a body grown accustomed to the quickened pace.

At the Olympic Games once again we jumped higher, swam faster and organized ourselves more thoroughly than ever before. The Atlanta games were us at our best. The struggle for excellence was matched by camaraderie and goodwill. Calculating though the TV presentation may have been, the stories it told of tribulations defeated and odds overcome warmed hearts around the world and inspired youth everywhere to strive for the same excellence.

But one person was out of step, or several, and that crude little bomb became another blast heard round the world.

It's comfortable to blame the one "suspect," or several. That would put all the rest of us back in the march to that perfect drumbeat. Unfortunately, life isn't so tidy. It's not so much a march as a giant shuffle, both the uphill and the downhill.

If indeed there was life on Mars, one wonders what ever happened to that brief moment of promise. Earth, once, was no more than a similar gleam of possibility. But ours, it seems, was a more persistent gleam that refused to fizzle.

At our best, ever since, we have manifested that same resilience: leaping higher, running faster, learning more, making safer airplanes. Making untarnished goodness and wisdom the ideal as we strive for the day when they will be the norm rather than the exception.

For the one or a few who set the bomb in Atlanta there were tens of thousands striving for greater excellence -- not only those at the games but all who similarly aspired but didn't make the cut and must wait for another chance. For every one or a few who put a bomb on a plane, anywhere, there are all the rest of us who don't, who in fact aspire to something better than this cowardly and stupid way of coming to terms with the world.

Sometimes it may seem the good and bad in us individually and communally are fighting to a draw. On bad days we may feel we're losing, but most days we know deep down we're winning.

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996