National Security & Defense

When Courage Is Needed, American Men Can Still Rise to the Occasion

From left: Stone, Sadler, and Skalatos at the U.S. embassy in Paris. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty)

In the post-9/11 world, these are the questions that men ask themselves all the time: “What would I do if I saw the worst happen? Would I be able to act? Would I have the courage?” For years after 9/11 we drew inspiration from “Let’s roll,” the words that launched the first American counteroffensive in the War on Terror, the fight for Flight 93. Now we have another inspiration, one with a happier ending: “Let’s go!”

The scene was straight from our worst nightmares. Last Friday, a terrorist boarded a crowded French train carrying an AK-47 and enough ammunition to kill dozens. His fellow passengers had no weapons. When he opened fire, the personnel responsible for the train fled, barricading themselves inside an engine car. But three Americans — one national guardsman, one airman, and one college senior — didn’t hesitate. The guardsman, Alek Skarlatos, called out “Let’s go, go!” and they charged. His friend, Airman First Class Spencer Stone, reached the gunman first, tackling him. The gunman fought back with a box cutter, nearly severing Stone’s thumb and slashing his neck.

But by that time, help had arrived. Skarlatos started beating the terrorist with his own weapon, college senior Anthony Sadler piled on, and a British man, Chris Norman, overcame his own initial instinct to hide and joined the fight. Together they subdued the attacker, hogtying him facedown on the ground. But Stone wasn’t finished. Though bleeding profusely himself, he gave immediate first aid to an injured passenger, clamping down on a severed artery and holding it until doctors arrived.

Thus did the front pages offer proof of a reality that’s often obscured in the seeming avalanche of bad cultural news: American men still have courage. Yes, there are exceptions — like the men who stood by, apparently without regrets, as a young man was stabbed to death for his smartphone in a Washington subway car. But in the years since 9/11, America has sustained its longest war on the strength of a completely volunteer fighting force, and on that French train it wasn’t just service-members who rose to the occasion. A college student and a British consultant joined the melee as well.

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We all have a choice. Through our passivity, through our dependence, or through our own spiritual, mental, or physical decline, we can be this person, a subway stabbing witness:

What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant. I am a little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won. It’s scary, because if we had been sitting closer and had seen the attack start I probably would have tried to help, and would have been stabbed.

Or through determination, resolve, and sheer courage, we can aspire to be this:

There was no thought of heroism as the men sprang into action, however. “What happened and what we did, it just feels unreal,” Mr. Skarlatos said in the Skype interview. “It felt like a dream, or a movie.”

In the train carriage, Mr. Stone was the first to act, jumping up at the command of Mr. Skarlatos. He sprinted through the carriage toward the gunman, running “a good ten meters to get to the guy,” Mr. Skarlatos said. Mr. Stone was unarmed; his target was visibly bristling with weapons.

A nation that excuses the cowardice of the men on the Washington Metro will get more cowardice. On Reddit, after a subway witness admitted to his own deplorable lack of courage, commenter after commenter excused his inaction and urged him to get therapy to deal with the terrible thing that he’d seen. Thankfully, however, that kind of excuse-making is drowned out by the thunderous applause for true courage.

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A trainload of passengers owe three American men their lives. We owe them our thanks. Because of their example, men — young and old — are asking themselves the hard questions about their own courage, perhaps laying the foundation for bravery if or when their moment comes. They charged when others cowered. They led and other men followed. Courage is contagious, and each moment of courage makes us less soft, makes us a harder target, and sends a message to our enemies. Americans still know how to fight.

— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of the Iraq War.


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