The headline could have been much different. The headlines have been much different. Gun attack kills 12, or Horrified passengers witnessed brutal slaying, or — oh, no, you don’t need to see more. You know. Whether the motive is criminal or terrorist, the enemy is at the gates. Today, the headline is as scary and infinitely less tragic. Three Wounded, Shooting on Train Averted, and President thanks ‘heroes’ who overpowered gunman.
The short version of events is this: Americans (Marines?) overheard the gunman loading his weapon in the restroom. They confronted him when he emerged and subdued him.
Why did they attack him when the people on the train in DC, less than two months ago, did nothing? Examining the difference between the two incidents is important and instructs us in our values and our culture. The people on the DC cowered in a corner, afraid for themselves and their family. They felt powerless and therefore they were powerless.
“You either run away or fight.”
The young Americans in France felt powerful and therefore they were powerful. Reports say that they were childhood friends, who grew up together. This long, shared history implies a deep level of trust. When Alek Skarlatos turned to Spencer Stone and simply said, “Let’s go,” they both knew that he meant, “Let’s go get him,” and not “Let’s go save ourselves.” And they did. They charged the man and, “got lucky and didn’t die.”
Watching the video of these heroes, you will be struck by the casual way they describe what happened. No self-aggrandizing. No posturing. Simple descriptions. How they were lucky. How after beating the gunman unconscious, Mr. Skarlatos walked the train with the AK-47 in hand, securing the location. He doesn’t realize the presence of mind that his actions took.
The fact that they were traveling together, they trusted each other, they knew each other, is likely a key reason they were able to act together. The Bystander Effect makes it difficult for us to act when no one else is acting. This may be an impactful difference between the incident in France and the tragedy in DC. When you know that you will not be acting alone, you will be more willing to act. They all knew that someone had their back, that they were going in together.
You must be able to help.
In Scouting, we tell the girls that it isn’t enough to want to help. You must be capable of helping. The Americans on the train were capable. Skarlatos is a Guardsman and Stone is an airman. Skarlatos clearly has had weapons training, and Stone has had paramedics training. They had the skills needed in the moment.
More than the knowledge and physical skills, these heroes possessed the mental skills. The ability to move without over-thinking. The ability to put the lives and safety of others before their own. The ability to not be paralyzed by fear. The ability to run towards the sound of chaos.
Sheepdogs and wolves
The scene in American Sniper when Wayne Kyle describes the sheep, the wolves and the sheepdog was familiar to many who live lives of service. While it’s unlikely that Chris Kyle heard this from this father, LTC Grossman’s wonderful essay, On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs is widely read and shared among the warrior class.
LTC Grossman was sorely abused in the movie version of his speech though. He did not believe that sheepdogs were born that way. He stresses that human beings have the capacity to learn, grow, choose and change. He calls being a sheepdog, “a conscious, moral decision.” He acknowledges that being a sheepdog is not a binary choice, that some will go to war, some will fight fires, some will police our streets, some will stand up to bullies, some will say, “Dude, that’s not cool,” when a friend engages in subtle forms of bullying.
Those people who stood by in horrified silence and watched a man stab another man to death were sheep. And they made a conscious choice to put their safety in front of others.
The men who said, “Let’s go,” and charged — unarmed — into a man with multiple weapons are sheepdogs. We honor them, as we should. We are grateful to them, as we should be. We should not revere them. We should recognize that their bravery, their skill, their actions are within the reach and capacity of all of us. You don’t know how to use a weapon? Easily fixed. You are out-of-shape? Not so easily fixed, and yet you can fix it.
Day by day, we each make choices about how we spend our time. Do we prepare ourselves for a potential encounter with evil? Are we working to be mentally, physically, emotionally prepared to do what needs to be done?
Sidenote: Soldiers and Airmen are not Marines
Initial reporting on the French train event said that the Americans were Marines. We get it. Marine is actually civilian-speak for “guy with short hair who is in the military”. These men are not Marines and would never tell you that they are. Skarlatos is a Guardsman. Members of the National Guard are citizen soldiers who trace their history back to the earliest militia. They go to boot camp like their active duty counterparts, and then go home to school, work, family. When their Nation or State needs them, they kit up and go into the fray. Stone is an Airman, a member of the US Air Force.
Most civilians don’t know or even care about these distinctions. Journalist clearly don’t. They regularly misreport the branch of service of persons of interest. Service members care deeply. The pain of being misunderstood is nearly physical.
That’s okay, though. While we may be different breeds of sheepdog, we know that sheep can’t tell the difference. Just don’t call us wolves.