Heros Are Neither Cynical Nor Sentimental In The Face Of Evil

By now the story is well known. On the evening of Friday, August 21st, three Americans, Spencer Stone, 23, Alek Skarlatos, 22, and Adam Sadler, 23, childhood friends on holiday in Europe, were snoozing on a Paris-bound train when they heard a noise like shattered glass and turned to see a man enter the carriage with an assault rifle. Several things happened in an instant: “I saw [the gunman] had an Ak-47 and it looked like it was jammed – he was trying to charge the weapon,” Stone told reporters. “Alek just hit me on the should and said ‘Let’s go!” and I ran down, tackled him, Alek ran up and grabbed the gun out of his hand while I put him in a chokehold.” The gunman, a 25-year-old Moroccan, Ayoud El-Khazzani, fought back, pulling weapon after weapon, including a box-cutter which he used to slice at Stone, wounding him in the neck and hand. Meanwhile Sadler, following his buddies into the fray, “beat [the shooter] until he was unconscious.”

The Americans weren’t alone. An Englishman, grandfather-of-three Chris Norman, “pounced on the gunman’s arm” so he couldn’t use a pistol he had pulled while Skarlatos muzzle-thumped him with the Kalashnikov. When the gunman finally lost consciousness, Norman and an off-duty train driver bound him while Skarlatos searched for other shooters. Stone, himself severely injured, tended to another passenger, Mark Moogalian, who was shot in the throat while scuffling with El Khazzani in the neighboring carriage. Stone staunched the heavy bleeding by jamming his fingers into Moogalian’s neck, compressing his arterial wound.

From El Khazzani authorities recovered 270 rounds of assault rifle ammunition, an automatic pistol with a full cartridge, the box-cutter, and a canister full of gasoline. Over 500 passengers were aboard the train.

This is a great story. A necessary story. It should be told to our children over supper. And again over breakfast. And every day until it becomes a part of that lore with which we nourish our young and which they cherish as a part of their patrimony. And every time we retell it we must, ourselves, attend to it closely for this story is also a greatly clarifying story. It helps to brush aside much of the twaddle that passes for contemporary moral wisdom, including within the Christian culture. But precisely what has it clarified? Three things, primarily.

First, it proves false both of a pair of cousin errors affecting our age like an illness. The first is a jaundiced cynicism downplaying the existence of goodness. The cynic doubts the reality of heroism, believing everything a matter of self-interest. The world is as the world is and evil cannot be stopped in any meaningful way. The cynic verges, regularly enough, on nihilism, deemphasizing the heroic and insisting that no one person is really any different than another –those we might call heroic are more often than not just the bad men on our side who keep the other bad men from our door.
Cynicism’s cousin ailment is sentimentalism. Of the two, this is the disease toward which Christian are most susceptible. Sentimentalism downplays evil and either views the world through a we-can-have-utopia-now haze of wishful thinking in which, through consensus and treaty, we can discourse our way toward peaceful relations or else dismisses the world in significant ways in pursuit of personal piety rather than justice-for-all, believing that now doesn’t actually matter all that much because the Christian is future-oriented and the world is simply not their business to save.

The events on that French train revealed the inadequacy of such thoughts. It turns out we can recognize heroes when we see them; heroism is, in fact, sometimes unambiguously clear. There really are those who rise up while others cower or are themselves unable to resist; there really are those who say “No!” to the wolves and who back their protest with strength of arms. It was also made clear that such heroes should be singled out. France has bestowed its highest civilian honor for gallantry on each of the rescuers. The American Air Force and Army will award Stone and Skarlatos, respectively, their highest decorations for valor outside of combat (Hopefully their respective chains of command judge them eligible for combat citations). But the medals aren’t the significant thing. What is significant is that to which the medals attest. There is something in Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Adam Sadler, Chris Norman, Mark Moogalian, and that off-duty train driver that is worthy of praise. I think it’s the presence of goodness. A part of the consequence of heroic action is its drawing to the surface what might until then have been only latent courage, self-sacrifice, other-centeredness, or any of the nobler aspects of personhood. Heroic activity profits us – not, or not simply, in the acquisition of treasure or decorative tokens but in the acquisition of virtue, in more closely mirroring the Divine. This is the chief source of human flourishing.

Moreover, it also became clear that heroic actions matter. However much Christian hope is most fully consummated at the end of history, folks recognized that in terms of human costs the consequences of the refusal of anyone on that train to fight back would have been catastrophic and that it was good, a genuine human good, that catastrophe was averted.

Second, because this is true it became unambiguously clear that there really are thingsin this world for which it is worth fighting. El Khazzani would not have been stopped with wishful thinking, peaceful entreaties, or prayer. He was stopped only when beaten into unconsciousness. “He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end,” noted Stone. It was only because his resisters were also willing to go the distance that he failed so spectacularly. “Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness,” God proclaimed, “And let them have dominion over…all the earth.” This testifies that history ishumanity’s business anda Christian concern. The tradition of just war casuistry developed from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas up through the neo-scholastics argues precisely this and outlines both obligations and limits. America, though, has always been uncomfortable with men of violence. One need only consider classic Westerns such as Once Upon a Time in the West, Shane, High Noon, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence – or, more recently, the television series 24 – to see that we’re unsure the place warriors have in our midst. But each of the above films also renders unambiguously clear the sometime necessity of the just application of violence to allow vital human goods to recover from assaults of unjust violence.

Finally, the last few days have made plain that we need to be prepared, now, for the eventualities of tomorrow. Both Chris Norman and Adam Sadler noted that they followed the lead of Stone and Skarlatos. Norman attested that his own resolve was galvanized by the Americans thundering ahead. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the two who led the charge had military training. Skarlatos downplayed this, insisting their military training really only kicked in after the shooter was down and they secured the area and treated the wounded. But what he chalked up to instinct is, I suspect, precisely what I’m talking about. In the time-frame of a crisis there is no time to think – only to act. But that’s the point. We must develop sets of habits until they are, well, habitual – instinctive. While such habits include developing technical competencies such as situational awareness and even basic hand-to-hand combat skills, just as important is the formation of a particular moral character.

Consider C.S. Lewis’s essay “The Necessity of Chivalry” describing the Medieval conception of a knight as a work of art, not nature. Lewis argues that the willingness to use power not for personal gain but under the limits of justice, peace, and order is not common for humanity. Rather, by nature, human beings after Eden tend toward either Achilles – martial wrath without restraint; or Milquetoast – invertebrate unwillingness to oppose anything. Chivalry drew fierceness and love of peace together and had an important role to play in articulating the just war conception of warfighters animated by right cause and restrained by proportionality, discrimination, and even love.

Such talk of chivalric warriors would be gently denied by those Paris-bound American boys. Instead, they described what they did as motivated by self-preservation. I don’t believe it. Many passengers, including Norman, described the train’s crewmembers fleeing the gunman and locking themselves in a secure compartment and refusing to open the door to admit others. Spencer Stone and his buddies charged the gunman from a distance of some ten meters; which means thirty-some-odd feet of open space lay between Stone and the AK-47. He testified that as he sprinted down the aisle he was sure he was about to be shot at any moment.

Anyone who’s ever been on a train knows that if there’s thirty feet between you and a gunman standing at one end of a carriage then there’s significantly fewer feet between you and the door at the opposite end. Stone, if he was really all about self-preservation, ought to have followed that crewman through the other door, away from danger. But something made him run toward the gunman instead. He can call it instinct if he wants. The rest of the world knows it for what it really is.

This is, I suppose, a final point of clarity: you can tell a hero by the direction they are running.