An inmate waves a Chilean flag from his cell at the San Miguel prison following a fire on Wednesday. Claudio Santana / AFP – Getty Images

Earlier today, the MSNBC photoblog ran a four image gallery on the fire at San Miguel Prison, Santiago.

Reporter, Jonathan Woods wrote: “Fire engulfed a prison in the Chilean capital early on Wednesday, killing 81 inmates and critically injuring 14 others, prison officials said, in the worst-ever accident in the country’s jail system. Officials said the fire was triggered during an early-morning fight between inmates.”

The arm of a flag-waving inmate from within the bowels of a charred prison is somewhat confusing for me – is he celebrating life in the face of tragedy? Is it an act of solidarity? If so, with whom – families on the outside, the people, the government (who presumably locked him away)?

The image of the flag amidst wreckage also recalls the visual cues as delivered during the 69 day rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, following the Copiao mining disaster.

The Chileans taught the U.S. a thing or to in flag-waving patriotism during the remarkable story.* The Chilean flag was in the hands of prayerful onlookers, on balloons released by children and on the t-shirts of miners as they emerged from underground in a Chilean themed extraction pod.

The uniting force of symbols – often flags – is powerful and should only be criticised when the means and ends are pernicious.

In the case of the Chilean miners rescue, a near tragedy that ended not only in no deaths but in celebration of life no criticism applies. Just joy. The montage ‘Chile, the Miners, and Respect for Life‘ packages red, blue and white footage against an uplifting music score, which is something I gather Brad Pitt is to perfect. Seriously.

This still gets me no closer to knowing the intent of the flag-waving Chilean prisoner.

Apparently, many nations involved in the rescue effort, counseling and diplomatic duty sent their flags along with their engineering experts. An isolated news report ‘Chilean miners solidarity flag resurfaces‘ explains that the Polish national flag signed by all 33 miners was retrieved from the mine today (belongings are still being extracted).

The flag had been passed to the miners when they were trapped underground in October by Polish missionary, Father Adam Bartyzoł.

* Stephen Colbert, America’s keenest flag-waver, loves the Chilean flag, “It’s just like the American flag, but chunkier!”

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