Lessons from the French train heroes

The planned massacre of passengers on a train in France by a heavily armed Islamist terrorist is a horror too awful to think about.  But thinking about it needs to happen.

What if we actually learned something from the quick, brave actions of three American 23-year-olds, a French-American dual citizen, and a grandfather from England, who fought the terrorist with their bare hands and protected the lives of all the passengers and crew?  What if celebrating the heroes were a step toward turning attention to terror vulnerabilities in Europe (and also in America)?

What if honor for these role models brought with it public demand for Western leaders to focus on stopping the continued plans of jihadists?

Reuters was still publishing stories with headlines like “Gunman dumbfounded by terrorist tag” when the three young friends from Carmichael, California – Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, Oregon National Guardsman Aleks Skarlatos, and Sacramento State University student Anthony Sandler – were asked, “What do you think of the claim that it was a robbery attempt?”

The three had succeeded in disarming the terrorist, beating him unconscious, and tying him up.

“It doesn’t take eight magazines to rob a train,” Anthony Sandler said wisely. 

Full disclosure: I’m a recently retired professor from Sacramento State, and though I don’t know Anthony, I think he and his friends have something to teach

In Sacramento, they are now hometown heroes.  They are also, suddenly, world-famous recipients of France’s highest award, the Légion d’Honneur medal.  President Hollande said that they had given the world “a lesson in courage.”

Just before the Legion of Honor ceremony, the press asked the three men what could be learned from their experience.  Anthony answered: “I want the lesson to be learned that in times of terror to please do something – don’t just stand by and watch.”

When “times of terror” unfold in our train car, we hope that we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by people with the instinctual, selfless reactions of Spencer Stone, Aleks Skarlatos, and Anthony Sandler.  

But we do know it can’t be left up to college students and off-duty U.S. military, no matter how brave, to save the day.  Anthony’s spontaneous response should be heeded at the highest city and national levels.

For starters, Europe and the U.S. might want to make a few adjustments.  The attacker, Ayoub El-Khazzani, could walk onto a train with a bagful of weapons, box-cutters, and ammunition unhindered by bag or ID checks or scanners.  He had already had been identified as a terrorist by Spain, and Spanish officials had alerted the French.  He was on watch lists in France, Spain, Belgium, and Germany, the same lists as the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo murders.  How did he slip through all that tracking?  Shouldn’t there be some security measures at train stations?

And what of the train crew?  French actor Jean Hugues Anglade, who was injured when he tried to break an emergency glass, has been telling anyone who will listen that when the terrorist appeared, the train crew disappeared without so much as a warning to the passengers.  Are they untrained for such an emergency?

Amid the well-deserved praise for the actions of these heroes, the lessons learned should not be simply for passengers, but for crews – not just for everyday citizens, but for those agencies and government leaders who are responsible for helping us preserve our freedom to live lives that are anathema to jihadist inspired terrorists.  

“I’m just a college student,” said Anthony Sandler.  “It’s my last year of college.  I came to see my friends on my first trip to Europe, and we stopped a terrorist.  It’s kind of crazy.”

Cherryl Smith writes at Framing Israel.