Europe’s media are still abuzz with the extraordinary story of three Americans who tackled a suspected terrorist on Friday on a train in Northern France. The question being asked is: 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 Monday by the French newspaper Le Monde focused on the attitude of the three Americans, exemplified when one, 22-year-old Oregon National Guard specialist Alek Skarlatos, said to his 23-year-old friend, U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone, “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, awarding the Americans the Legion of Honor, praised their “sangfroid.” A former British Army colonel declared: “It’s an American thing. I salute it.”
According to Stone’s account, 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 and put him in a choke hold; Skarlatos disarmed him. When El-Khazzani then pulled a pistol, Skarlatos wrestled that from him, too. Then El-Khazzani pulled a box cutter and stabbed at Stone, nearly severing his thumb. The two young men pummeled the Moroccan until he was unconscious, aided by their friend, Anthony Sadler, a student, and Chris Norman, a 62-year-old Briton. They tied him up.
The four weren’t, however, the first to try to stop El-Khazzani. A man who 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 U.S.-born university professor from Paris, Mark Moogalian, then wrestled the semi-automatic from El-Khazzani, only to be shot with a pistol.
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 was probably going to die.
So too is the concern that El-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 jihadists return to Europe from Syria. El-Khazzani says he was just trying to rob people and found the weapons abandoned in a park.
Soft targets – from trains 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 about defending against terrorism, it is that ordinary people will sometimes be the only defense. The key to making ordinary people effective isn’t the American spirit, it’s training. Because they knew what to do, Stone and Skarlatos were confident enough to say, “Let’s go,” and empowered to succeed.
Moogalian is still alive, his wife says, thanks to Stone. The American said he saw the professor was bleeding profusely from his neck, realized a tourniquet would do no good, and plunged two fingers into the wound to cap a burst artery 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 the United States and most of Europe. They’re expensive, inefficient and unpopular. Reinstituting the draft would as yet be a vast overreaction to the scale of the threat.
Even so, it’s worth considering that the most effective defense against an attack that is increasingly part of the jihadist tool kit may be to make the training Stone and Skarlatos had much more widespread.
Marc Champion is a columnist for Bloomberg View.