Courage has often been described as one’s subconscious ability to act for a few seconds longer in the face of fear. As John Wayne once put it, to be courageous “is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”
That mindset, whether conscious or not, is what led to three Americans taking down a suspected terrorist on a Paris-bound train last week.
When 26-year-old Ayoub el-Khazzani, an Islamic extremist, emerged from the train’s bathroom loaded to the teeth with everything from an AK-47, a pistol, and a box cutter, his intention was to do some serious damage.
Unfortunately for el-Khazzani, two unforeseen factors were working against him: his weapon jammed, and he was on the same train car as U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and their friend Anthony Sadler. Call it divine intervention if you will, but these three young men along with another American and a Brit were absolutely in the right place at the right time.
Skarlatos, recently back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, saw the gunman emerge from the bathroom, hit Stone on the shoulder and said “let’s go.” This prompted the three friends to act on their own by running down the middle of the train car, tackling el-Khazzani.
While Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler were running towards danger, many were running away from it. Fight or flight kicked in, and in a split second, the American spirit was embodied by three friends who chose to stand and fight, not only for their own lives, but for every other person on that train.
“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end,” Stone said. “So were we.”
Which brings me to this: If you take nothing else away from this chance encounter between Stone, Skarlatos, Sandler, and a radical Islamic extremist out to murder, walk away with this: Have the guts to stand up, and get involved.
“The lesson to be learnt is in times of terror, to please do something – don’t just stand by and watch,” said Anthony Sandler.
Be honest. How many of us go through our day encountered with opportunities to make an impact on the people we cross paths with? How many of us shy away from those opportunities because we “don’t want to get involved”? Maybe it’s an opportunity to stop and comfort someone who just had a fender bender on the way to work. Maybe someone slipped and fell, spilling their coffee everywhere. And maybe it’s seeing a person emerge from a bathroom about to unload the magazine of an AK-47 onto a group of unsuspecting train passengers.
The point, so perfectly stated by Sandler, is that we must not be afraid to get involved, either out of fear, or because our decision to act may inconvenience our daily routine. As a civilization, we have an unspoken duty to watch out for one another, and have each other’s backs in moments of crisis both big and small.
The courage and willingness to act exhibited by these three Americans is not only commendable, but an example which we should all strive to emulate.