From the safety of our homes, we read about Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, three buddies on a European vacation, and marvel at their heroics. We watch the video of the three young Americans matter-of-factly describing their acts, swell with pride, and wonder what we might have done. We wish we would have been similarly selfless.
We wonder, too, what horrors might have happened if Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos had hesitated. They didn’t. Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos ran toward danger in the person of jihadist Ayoub El-Khazzani. Because they prevailed, there was no death aboard the speeding train that carried 550 people from Brussels to Paris.
As McClatchy’s European correspondent Matthew Schofield wrote, “The difference between horror and heroism came down to 15 seconds, an assault rifle that may have misfired, and three friends who happened to be on a European vacation together.”
Those of us who have whatever wisdom comes with age know that most men in their early 20s think they are invincible. But these young men know otherwise. Skarlatos is in the National Guard in Oregon. Stone is an airman first class, having served a tour in Afghanistan. Sadler, a Sacramento State senior, is the son of a local preacher.
Given their life experience, they know about the transitory nature of life, and that muscle, no matter how hard, is no match for a bullet or a sharp blade. “It was either do something or die,” Sadler said at the news conference.
Their actions inspired others, among them French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who had the presence of mind to sound an emergency alarm on the train, and Chris Norman, a British citizen, who said he thought of hiding until he heard the young Americans rushing toward the gunman.
“My thought was, ‘I’m probably going to die anyway, so let’s go.’ Once you start moving, you’re not afraid anymore,” said Norman, who helped subdue the attacker.
President Obama called to commend Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos. French President Francois Hollande thanked them for “their exceptional courage and their efficiency to prevent a tragedy.”
Once they are done being honored in Europe, Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos will receive more accolades on this nation’s soil. Any and all resolutions and honors will be well deserved.
Lawmakers also could honor them by making a point of funding public universities and services for veterans, including the ones who return home with physical and mental wounds. Employers looking to hire could give an extra hard look at veterans, knowing that they bring unusual and important qualifications to any workplace.
It’s easy to see the military as a society apart because it is a volunteer force. But the military helped mold Stone and Skarlatos in valuable ways that Americans don’t sufficiently appreciate. Along with Sadler, they pummeled the gunman into submission, but they didn’t become vigilantes. They held him until authorities arrived.
Too many older people dismiss younger people because of the misdeeds or misdirection of a few. Not every 20-something has an opportunity to be a hero. But the vast majority are more like Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos than not.
Sadler, Stone, and Skarlatos are products of proud familes and solid middle-class public schools. They exemplify a generation that is distinguishing itself by its service.
This editorial was originally published in the Sacramento Bee.