August 30, 2015

Lessons of 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 something actually were learned 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 America?

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

Reuters was still publishing stories with titles like "Train gunman dumbfounded by terrorist tag" when the three friends from Carmichael, California, Airman 1st Class, Spencer Stone, Oregon National Guardsman, Alek Skarlatos, and Sacramento State University student, Anthony Sadler 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 Sadler said wisely.

As a recently retired Sacramento State professor, I paid special attention to the coverage of Anthony and his friends, and I think they have something to teach.

In Sacramento, they are hometown heroes. They are also, suddenly, world famous recipients of France's highest award, the Legion d'Honneur medal. President Hollande said they have given the world a "lesson in courage."

Just before the Legion of Honor ceremony, the press asked the three young 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."

If "times of terror" unfold in our train car, we hope we are lucky enough to be surrounded by people with the instinctive, selfless reactions of Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler.

But we do know it can't be left up to college students and off-duty US military, no matter how brave, to save the day. Anthony's spontaneous response, "in times of terror...please do something -- don't just stand by and watch," should be heeded at the highest city and national levels.

For starters, Europe and the US might want to make a few adjustments. The attacker, Ayoub El-Khazzani simply walked onto the train with a bagful of weapons, box cutters, and ammunition. It doesn't seem that complicated to need to place one's bag on a conveyor and at the same time walk through a metal detector gate at the entrance to train stations. It works well in Israel.

Of course, in Israel there are other security measures as well, like personnel trained and equipped for emergency. And yet the atmosphere (not counting the rush hour crowds and general noise) is relaxed.

But on the Amsterdam-Paris train not only was security lacking, according to French actor, Jean-Hugues Anglade who was injured while breaking an emergency glass, when the terrorist appeared the train crew disappeared without so much as a warning to the passengers.

Along with no bag checks there were also no ID checks. El-Khazzani had already 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. Are these lists something officials "just stand by and watch"?

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

"I'm just a college student," said Anthony Sadler. "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."


An earlier version of this post appeared in AmericanThinker.

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