France honored three Americans and a Briton today by awarding them the country’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur, in recognition of their heroic efforts to disarm and overpower a gunman on a high-speed train.
Airman First Class Spencer Stone, 23, Alek Skarlatos, 22, a specialist in the Oregon National Guard, and their friend Anthony Sadler, 23, were joined by Chris Norman, 62, a British consultant, in the Élysée Palace Monday to receive the honor.
“One need only know that Ayoub El Khazzani was in possession of 300 rounds of ammunition and firearms to understand what we narrowly avoided, a tragedy, a massacre,” the New York Times quoted French President François Hollande as saying at the ceremony, referring to the suspect. “Your heroism must be an example for many and a source of inspiration. Faced with the evil of terrorism, there is a good, that of humanity. You are the incarnation of that.”
The three Americans, friends since childhood, were on vacation, with stops planned in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. Just after the train they were on from Amsterdam to Paris crossed the Belgian border into France, they heard a shot, saw a gunman with an AK-47, and rushed to stop him.
When everybody else was running away, these young men ran toward the sound of gunfire. Speaking in French to reporters after the ceremony, Mr Norman, the Briton, said he felt honored by the distinction. “I did what I had to do. It wasn’t heroism; it was what needed to be done in a situation of survival.”
The Americans didn’t speak at the ceremony but did talk to the press at a news conference Sunday at the ambassador’s residence. They discharged, to a certain extent, suggestions of heroism, but it seems true heroes never go into a situation with heroism in mind; that’s the realm of politics. Rather, they act bravely with little regard for self, and their courage propels them into heroic action.
The wisdom of going after an active shooter
After Columbine and especially after Sandy Hook, a massacre of very young children, school officials have grappled with a dilemma: Should we conduct practice drills for what we would do if an active shooter gained entry into our building?
There’s no right or wrong way to act when it happens, but practicing for such an occurrence can be a two-edged sword: It can make students feel readier and safer in the event of a shooter, but it can also pile a heap of anxiety on them when, most likely, nothing like Sandy Hook or Columbine will ever be experienced at their school.
Many more Europeans would be dead if these five brave people had not acted as they did, which makes their action seem heroic, in hindsight. The train ride brought much less carnage than it might have brought, but I think, as Mr Norman said, it wasn’t heroism that drove them; it was a deep understanding that their actions were necessary for the survival of everyone involved. The situation they found themselves in offered no other choice to their brave spirits.
In a few school shootings we’ve had in the US, a teacher or other brave individual has disarmed the shooter. In others, the shooter took his own life or intended to do so. In the wake of these Americans’ heroism in France, we come to ask ourselves, What would we have done?