Berman: Hollywood ending for 3 American heroes

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

The terrorist on the train. It’s a suspense thriller that could only surprise us in the movies.

And yet, this weekend, three young men — buddies with a long history and mutual trust — took down a Morroccan-born man loaded up with the requisite gear of the terrorist trade. The AK-47, the box cutters, 300 rounds of ammunition. Enough weaponry and ammo to create one of those grisly scenes of blood and fear with which we have become far too familiar.

Except that, in this case, what we got instead were three heroes — American heroes — and the kind of sappy, ceremonial ending that would be deemed sentimental and unrealistic even in a Lifetime movie.

There was French President Francois Hollande, pinning the Legion of Honor medal on each of their chests, awarding them his nation’s highest honor only hours after the drama itself, as if this were a Hollywood movie, rather than real life.

Only hours after they charged, fought and hog-tied the would-be gunman, the Americans accepted their medals as awkwardly as schoolboys, practically cringing with discomfort as the president of France kissed each them each twice, on each cheek.

On the blog of American expatriate journalist Tish Jett, Alexandre Guichard posted a graphic of the Eiffel Tower dressed in our stars and stripes. “Their response, in spite of the peril to their lives, made me think of World War II when young American and British soldiers risked their lives as they embarked on French soil to save my country,” he wrote, evoking the precise imagery this scene begged for.

“Once again I see what I so admired then, individuals who reacted with selfless courage in the face of danger in the name of liberty and honour.”

As Americans in a complicated world, we’re accustomed to feeling ambivalent about military action. In our farflung, murky contemporary wars, victory is as hazy as a lakeside sunrise and ultimately less pretty to look at when the mist clears.

Heroes too often become victims, celebrated for bravery that cost their lives. Heroism isn’t a rational response or, necessarily, a thoughtful one — an idea born out by a 2014 Yale University study that found “heroes act first, think later,” as a New York magazine reported at the time.

These Americans, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, both servicemen, and Anthony Sadler, an Oregon college student and their boyhood friend, described their own behavior as automatic and instinctive. Encouraged by his friend Skarlatos, Stone charged the gunman, despite being unarmed and racing — behavior that was both counter-intuitive and shockingly, delightfully successful.

“In the beginning it was mostly gut instinct, survival,” Skarlatos said in an interview with reporters, as he described a scene that might have been written for Harrison Ford in his heyday.

Whether the gunman was a terrrorist or, as his lawyer claims, merely a heavily armed would-be train robber, is a legalistic distinction. Action, not reason, triumphed. While the French train security locked themselves in a compartment, a handful of men relied on some alchemy of instinct, military training, adrenaline rush and — perhaps — their own brotherhood to save lives, while miraculously saving their own.