Symbols matter, especially in relations between states. When Americans Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler—joined by Briton Chris Norman—stopped an Islamist terrorist attack in a French train last week, it should have reminded Europe that the Atlantic Alliance is still a bedrock need.
Most of the world knows well by now what the four accomplished last Friday. Moroccan national Ayoub El-Khazzani emerged from the bathroom of the Amsterdam-Paris Thalys train 9364, brandishing an AK-47 and carrying close to 300 rounds of ammunition as well as other weapons. The transatlantic quartet leapt into action: they tackled him, subdued him and tied him up until French authorities could show up and arrest him.
French President Francois Hollande praised the heroes for putting themselves at risk to save the lives of an untold number of the 554 passengers on board. On Monday, Hollande awarded the four France’s highest honor, La Legion d’Honneur.
On Tuesday, French authorities formally opened an investigation and are preparing charges against El-Khazzani, who they said watched a jihadi video on his cell phone right before he set off with his weapons.
The whole sequence of events was so rich with symbolism, it might have been choreographed by Hollywood (if Hollywood were still making movies that extolled American goodness). It even extended to wardrobe. The three Americans were wearing short-sleeved polo shirts when Hollande pinned on their medals.
And it extended to "supporting cast" members, Mark Moogalian, the French citizen who tried, though unsuccessfully, to restrain El-Khazzani, turned out to be American-born; he holds dual French and American nationality.
There was symbolism to spare for home audiences as well. The three Americans have been fast friends since middle school and had decided to travel in Europe together. Skarlatos and Stone, both members of the U.S. Armed Forces, are Caucasian. Sadler is an African American student. In America, where racial division often crowds out good news in the media, the trio’s friendship and solidarity subtly instructs us on how brilliantly our country can succeed when we all pull together.
But it is the impact that this act of heroism has had in France—which possesses, in Henry Kissinger’s famous phrase, “the always prickly French pride” —that is most noteworthy. As the BBC’s Hugh Schofield observed:
"The French are enthralled by the three Americans who acted so swiftly to stop the Thalys gunman. In their news conference Sunday afternoon at the US embassy in Paris, they came over as archetypes of American masculine virtue: handsome, strong, modest. Deep in the French gene, there is something that responds positively to this. It is the same spirit that is so grateful—70 years on—for the American sacrifice in the Normandy landings: a recognition of the American capacity to join moral clarity with swift, decisive action."
Though much is often written about French disdain for Les Anglo-Saxons, under which they lump Britons and Americans (as well as Australians, New Zealanders and non-Quebec Canadians) Schofield’s point is well taken. Any American or Briton who has traveled in Normandy or the Ardennes, regions where Allied forces fought mano-a-mano with the Germans in WWII, can attest to the deeply-felt gratitude of the rank-and-file everyman.
At a time when many on both sides of the Atlantic question the need for a continuation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the events aboard the Thalys remind us that Europe and North America face common threats and challenges, from a revanchist Russia, to an unstable Middle East, to an Islamist terrorist threat.
"While these were individual acts of heroism, they also point out that we have more in common with our European Allies than we have divisions." President George W. Bush’s last ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, told me. "We share a common commitment to humanity, which differentiates us from the Islamist terrorists we are confronting."
Colleen Graffy, who headed public diplomacy for the European bureau at State at the same time, agreed. "Training, strength, and ability to identify and thwart aggression. Thalys Train is like NATO personified and a salient reminder of why we need it," she wrote in an email from England, where she is a visiting law professor for the University of Notre Dame’s London campus.
The selfless acts by these "Anglo-Saxons" should also be a timely reminder that defense spending needs to increase. With few notable exceptions, it remains paltry, often under 2% of GDP. NATO can be an alliance that joins moral clarity with swift, decisive action, but it needs adequate investment to make such action possible.
- This article originally appeared in Forbes. The original piece can be found at http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikegonzalez3/2015/08/26/american-heroes-on-french-train-symbolize-atlantic-alliance/