After last week’s post (“Religion, Rape and Slavery,” 8/21/15), what could be more uplifting than the story of three young Americans, whose heroic efforts to subdue an armed terrorist saved the lives of over 500 people aboard a crowded bullet train between Amsterdam and Paris? Alek Skarlatos, a National Guard specialist from Oregon was vacationing in Europe with a friend in the Air Force, Spencer Stone, and another American, Anthony Sadler, when they saw a man carrying an AK-47. Another passenger had already thrown himself on the armed man, and the gun had fired several times, shattering glass and hitting a passenger. “Let’s go, go!” Skarlatos shouted to his friend Stone, a powerfully built martial arts practitioner. Stone chased the heavily armed gunman, and with the help of his friends, pinned him to the ground. Barely twelve hours later, Skarlatos remarked in an interview: “I mean, adrenaline mostly just takes over…. I didn’t realize or fully comprehend what was going on.”
Maybe adrenaline and incomplete comprehension played a role in the heroics of these three brave Americans. But I’m guessing more than adrenaline motivated them to protect themselves and the other passengers. What happened to the adrenaline pumping through the veins of French passengers and train personnel? Well, we can see what the personnel did with their adrenaline-driven fight or flight reaction: theyran away and locked themselves in the engine room without trying to help passengers. Clearly, adrenaline isn’t the answer. The qualities that separate heroes from selfish and cowardly people are courage and caring about others, even strangers on a train.
But there’s even more to learn from this story. Stone—the first to grab the gunman by the neck—was cut and slashed so badly that his own thumb was nearly severed. Despite being wounded and bleeding, Stone continued to pin down the gunman in a choke hold until his friends disarmed the
man, Skarlatos hitting him in the head with the AK-47. After Skarlatos, Sadler and a British citizen finally succeeded in subduing the resistant gunman, Stone went to the aid of a gunshot victim—despite his own serious injury. According to Sadler, the passenger “would have died without his (Stone’s) help.” Stone took heroism to an even higher level when he helped save the life of a stranger. After the immediate danger of the gunman had been eliminated, the young American could have nursed his own wounds and still been hailed a hero. Surely, one of the many unscathed French passengers could have pitched in to help? But that’s not what happened. Instead, the ferocious determination of one American hero would not allow him to rest until he had done everything in his power to correct the evil perpetrated by the train gunman.
The gunman, a 26 year old Moroccan named Ayoub El Kahzani, was known to Spanish and French security services, and had reportedly travelled to Syria last year. Spanish authorities notified French intelligence services in February 2014 that El Kahzani had joined “the radical Islamist movement.” The French then classified him as a security threat and gave him an “S” profile. France has about 5,000 people on their “S” list, according Agence France Presse,
but apparently nobody knows how many “S” profiles are active or how the list has expanded over the years. (!?!) What does that even mean in light of the fact that El Kahzani continued to travel freely among European cities? Some so-called experts and officials have suggested that the gunman wasn’t a terrorist because he was ill equipped and poorly trained to shoot up a train, or because his Kalishnikov was jammed and his pistol incorrectly loaded. Really? Does the fact that the shooter was incompetent make him less
likely to be a terrorist? (There’s a chilling thought.) Unfortunately, watching the investigation unfold in the American news media, I feel compelled to point out that the train incident was NOT a scene from a Pink Panther movie, but a real life tragedy only narrowly averted—no thanks to the French police who are allowing armed “S”listers to ride their trains. Doesn’t the world deserve a deeper, more intelligent analysis and investigation than the one conducted by a collection of Inspector Clouseaus?
All three American heroes have been honored, as they should be. President Obama called them “to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action.” French President Hollande phoned Obama “thanking him warmly” for the “exemplary conduct of the American citizens” who had prevented “an extremely serious act.” The French president also awarded all three Americans with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration created by Napoleon in 1802. The award is intended to honor meritorious deeds of ordinary people, rather than chivalrous acts linked to nobility. Will the gratitude of the French government expressed toward our brave young Americans be echoed by French citizens, who tend to be snobbish and condescending toward Americans in general? Or will the negative stereotype of boorish American prevail? When does “boorish” transmute into heroic, and when does stylish politesse and nonchalance devolve into self-absorption and betrayal of your fellow man? (Hint: on a train with an armed gunman.)
I’d really like to think that the world can learn from the handful of heroes on our planet. We ought to be using social media to cultivate courage and humanity in children, instead of standing by while ISIS recruits vulnerable youths in pursuit of insanity and evil. Somehow the best and brightest minds must come up with strategies to nurture and reward heroic behavior, while finding ways to discourage evil and violence. If you think there’s something more important we humans need to be doing at this time in history, think again.
In the meantime, it would be nice if the French would develop a kinder, more appreciative attitude toward the USA. After all, hundreds of their citizens are alive today because of the bravery of three young Americans.
Will the French remember our heroics on their behalf? Stay tuned until next summer when I plan to travel to France.