On Friday last, an Islamist attack on a French high-speed passenger train yielded a rather predictable response: Sensing danger, a trio of American men immediately fought back, one among them sustaining considerable injuries in the process; inspired by their example, a British national reluctantly joined in with the resistance; and, as is now de rigeur in such situations, the French ran away in terror. “One need only know that [the terrorist] was in possession of 300 rounds of ammunition,” French President François Hollande confirmed afterwards, “to understand what we narrowly avoided, a tragedy, a massacre.” The “heroism” of the men who stood up to be counted, he added, “must be an example for many.” This, clearly, had been a close call.
And how, for had the gunman’s plan come to hideous fruition, the West would once again have been forced to face an unpleasant and sobering fact: that where freedom of movement and the presumption of privacy are treasured, those who would do severe harm to innocent people will always begin with an advantage. As we have learned here in America over the past few decades, armed men who are determined to kill will often — perhaps usually — prevail. In consequence, savvier observers of the international scene have for a while now wondered why al-Qaeda and their many sympathizers have not responded to the increased security measures that followed the September 11 attacks by switching to softer, less risky targets. “Surely,” they have thought, “an assailant who wishes to inflict serious pain on the West has only to get hold of a couple of guns and then to go where the metal detectors and the sniffer dogs are not: to the schools, to the malls, to the trains? Forget airplanes, why aren’t we being hit where we are weak?”
If the past few months are anything to go by, the answer to this question is “We are.” In Paris, in Nairobi, in Mumbai, in Chattanooga, in Dallas, and now in Belgium, terrorist groups have elected to attack us where our defenses are not. If, heaven forbid, this trend were to continue and to metastasize, it would wreak havoc on our conception of national security. “The gunman would have been successful if my friend Spencer [Stone] had not gotten up,” noted Anthony Sadler, one of the Americans who took on the shooter in France. “I want that lesson to be learned, in times of terror like that, to please do something. Don’t just stand by and watch.”
For the sake of accuracy, we must note that two of the four men who brought the gunman down were active members of the U.S. military, and that they were therefore in possession of skills and reflexes that separate them from the average man on the street. And yet — and this is key — while the pair may indeed have been trained to deal with such a situation, they were not in fact on duty at the time. Rather, like the three other men who came to the passengers’ aid, they were merely in the wrong place at the right time — a couple of private citizens who went above and beyond the call. And what of the actual officials on the train? They fled ignominiously for cover. Upon hearing the shots, the Daily Mail reports, the crew abandoned all decorum, “hurried towards their own car on the train, and opened it ‘with a special key,’” before locking themselves inside. There, they kept silent, even as terrified passengers banged on the doors. In the corridor, meanwhile, the spirit of Todd Beamer lived on.
That matters. At present, we have a tendency to draw a bright line between our officials and ourselves: On the one hand we have the cops, whose job it is to fight crime and protect the public; on the other we have the civilians who employ and pay them, and who therefore consider themselves to be devoid of responsibility. Should these instances become more common, that distinction will quickly blur. Open “societies,” suggests Ronald Noble, a former secretary general of Interpol, will “have to think about how they’re going to approach the problem.” One option, Noble proposes, would be for free people to look to the government or to the security services, and to request that soft targets be retrofitted with “extraordinary security.” Another “is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that.”
This latter option is not foreign to Americans. Because the Second Amendment still obtains, and because the police have been deemed to lack any legal duty to protect, the United States has never quite abandoned its pre-19th-century approach toward the mitigation of violence. For better or for worse, the idea that the people have a key role to play in keeping the peace is not a peculiar one here. In Britain, in Europe, and in the wider world, however, the suggestion that everyday citizens might be called upon to defend themselves violently is likely to be met with blank stares and stammering incredulity. That, it is broadly presumed, is simply not how it works. Perhaps events will yet conspire to change their settled minds.