The heroism of the classical world requires inherent qualities: nobility, the capacity to withstand suffering, extraordinary physical courage. But in a democratic age, the real stuff of heroism is in the contrast between the ordinariness of the individuals and the extraordinariness of their actions. The three young Americans whose split-second response to a life-threatening terrorist attack probably saved dozens, even scores, of lives of passengers on the 3.17 express from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday afternoon were hardly less ordinary than most of the rest of us. Two of them, Alek Skarlatos, 22, and Spencer Stone, 23, were serving members of the US armed forces.
But the third, Anthony Sadler Junior, 23, was only a student, in his final-year at Sacramento State University. None of them appears to have been trained in any way to tackle a heavily armed terrorist in a confined space. They were just three young men looking forward to a night out in Paris, when they heard shots and took action. In an act of extraordinary courage, they ran the full length of the carriage to confront the man, 25-year-old Ayoub el-Khazzani, a Moroccan national. No wonder the US ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, was beaming almost uncontrollably as journalists from the world’s media queued to say thank you to her fellow American citizens.
It was not only the Americans: at least as remarkable was a Frenchman, now refusing to give interviews, who first encountered the gunman and was shot when he tackled him. And so too was the decision of Chris Norman, 62, a Briton in the same carriage as the Americans, sitting working on his laptop. When he heard the gunshots his first instinct was the entirely rational one: he looked for somewhere to hide. But then he took inspiration from the young Americans and joined the battle, reportedly providing – in a detail too good not to be true – his tie in order to bind the captive’s hands.
Every attack of this nature sends another tremor through the structures of civil society. Trust between travellers will become a little more fragile; security at train stations may be stepped up. Intelligence agencies should be left, once again, considering the lessons to be learned from allowing a recognised potential risk – El-Khazzani had been identified as a radical Islamist, and there are unconfirmed reports that he had travelled recently to Syria – to acquire weapons and launch a challenge. But perhaps even more important is the renewed evidence of the power of one or two people to prevent harm and to do good.
Society needs its heroes, and although the names that history remembers tend to be the ones who are prepared to confront death, or who refuse to accept it as beyond resistance – like the 33 passengers on Flight 93 on 9/11 who took a vote to tackle the hi-jackers rather than allow their plane to be used as a flying bomb – heroism takes many forms. By striking coincidence, shortly before the four passengers on the Paris express overpowered the putative terrorist, Malala the young Pakistani woman shot by the Taliban to stop her going to school, passed a string of GCSEs at A and A* to add to her Nobel peace prize. Heroic actions are what shape the scope of public ambition. As Anthony Sadler, the Sacramento student, told the news conference in Paris when asked if there were lessons to be learned: what matters is that you do not stand by and watch.