Train rescue shows how heroes are made

Europe's media is still abuzz with the extraordinary story of three Americans who tackled a suspected terrorist last Friday on a train in northern France. The question being asked is this: Were they displaying a distinctly American can-do spirit?

That's probably inevitable, but a better question would be: Should Western countries consider reintroducing compulsory military service to spread some can-do spirit around?

An article published on Monday in the French newspaper Le Monde focused on the attitude of the three Americans, exemplified by 22-year-old Oregon National Guard specialist Alek Skarlatos telling his friend, US Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone, 23: "Let's go."


"Will these three words become a hashtag?" the daily asks, describing the bravery and decisiveness of the men as an argument against passivity in such situations.

President Francois Hollande, in awarding the Americans the Legion of Honour on Sunday along with a Briton who helped out, praised their "sangfroid".

A former British Army colonel, writing in the UK's Daily Telegraph, declared: "It's an American thing. I salute it."


According to Mr Stone's account at a press conference, he saw the gunman, widely reported to be a 26-year-old Moroccan named Ayoub El Khazzani, struggling with his rifle and ran to tackle him. The American put Khazzani in a choke hold while Mr Skarlatos disarmed him. When Khazzani then pulled a pistol, Mr Skarlatos wrestled that from him, too. Then Khazzani pulled a box cutter and stabbed at Mr Stone, nearly severing his thumb. The two young men pummelled the Moroccan until he was unconscious, aided by their friend Anthony Sadler, a student, and the Briton, Mr Chris Norman, 62. They tied him up.

The four Anglo-Saxons weren't, however, the first to try to stop Khazzani. A man who has asked to remain anonymous reportedly threw himself at the gunman when he was still in the train's toilet, strapping on weapons. He was overpowered. A US-born university professor from Paris, Mr Mark Moogalian, then wrestled the semi-automatic from Khazzani, only to be shot with a pistol. The gunman retrieved his rifle.

If Hollywood makes a film out of this, I'm sure "Let's go" would be at the heart of the narrative. The bravery of all six men is overwhelming, as is the power of their recognition that if they failed to act, everyone in the train carriage was probably going to die.

So too is the concern that Khazzani, who appears to have lived in Spain and France and was on a terrorist watch list in both countries, presages more such attacks as hundreds of militants return to Europe from Syria. Khazzani says he was just trying to rob people on the train and had found the weapons abandoned in a park.

Soft targets - from trains to buses to bars to shopping malls - can be attacked. No police force can protect them all, and no intelligence service can monitor every suspect. So if this incident tells us anything useful about defending against terrorism, it is that ordinary people will sometimes be the only defence.

The key to making ordinary people effective isn't the American spirit, it's training. Because they knew what to do, Mr Stone and Mr Skarlatos were confident enough to say, "Let's go", and empowered to succeed.

Mr Moogalian is still alive, his wife says, thanks to Mr Stone. The American said he saw the professor was bleeding profusely from his neck, realised a tourniquet would do no good, and plunged two fingers of his undamaged hand into the wound to cap a burst artery. He kept his fingers there until help arrived. Without military-level first aid training, I doubt he would have had the knowledge or confidence to act so effectively.

Conscription-based militaries are out of vogue in most of Europe and in the United States, and for good reason. They're expensive, inefficient and unpopular (I know I wouldn't have wanted to join the army at 18). Reinstituting the draft, or national service as it used to be called in Britain, would as yet be a vast overreaction to the scale of the threat.

Even so, it's worth considering that the most effective defence against a certain kind of attack that appears increasingly part of the militant tool kit may be to make the training the two Americans had much more widespread.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2015, with the headline 'Train rescue shows how heroes are made'. Print Edition | Subscribe