“Behaving like military” can be a loaded comment in Europe. Twelve years after the US invaded Iraq – to the outrage of many European nations, first among them France – the political impact still reverberates. Just recently Jeremy Corbyn, vying to lead the Labour Party in Britain, said that if elected he will issue a public apology over Britain’s participation in the Iraq war 12 years ago.
But the instinct and steely resolve showed by three young Americans, including one US airman and a National Guardsman just back from Afghanistan, has elicited an outpouring of praise for American daring. Authorities have lauded the three and one Briton for preventing what could have been another mass terrorism event on a European train Friday night.
Already hailed as heroes across social media over the weekend, with American flags and the words “Thank you” blazing across the Twittersphere, today they were awarded France’s top honor, the Legion of Honor, at French President François Hollande’s official residence.
“This Legion of Honor is representative of your courage and also your incredible act of humanity … to save those also on the train,” said President Hollande, to the khaki-clad childhood friends, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler, who saw a suspected terrorist begin what leaders believe was intended as a rampage, and rushed in to stop it, along with Briton Chris Norman.
"Spencer and Alek, you are soldiers but here you were simple passengers ... you behaved like military, but more than anything you behaved like men who defend liberty," Hollande said.
'Nothing short of heroes'
The US war on terror is not the natural object of affection in Europe. Europeans have been more critical than the global average of the interrogation methods used by the US, including at Guantánamo Bay, against suspected terrorists in the wake of 9/11, the latest Pew Global Attitudes & Trends survey shows. While a median of 50 percent in 40 nations oppose such practices, in Germany opposition rose as high as 68 percent. In both France and the UK, 58 percent of residents say they are against the methods.
Today, the controversies have been forgotten in lieu of a profound appreciation. “People here can have disagreements about specific topics related to the US military, be it Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.,” says Bastien Delaubert, a journalist at a bustling train station in Paris Monday morning. But “they are nothing short of heroes. It sounds like a big word, but that is exactly what they are.”
The gunman, who was born in Morocco and denies terrorist intent, entered the Thalys train at a stop in Brussels. Once on the train, he went into a bathroom and emerged wielding weapons, first overpowering a French passenger who tried to stop him. The two Americans, followed by their other lifelong friend, college student Anthony Sandler, and with the help of Mr. Norman, tackled and subdued the gunman. “When most of us would run away, Spencer, Alek, and Anthony ran into the line of fire, saying ‘Let’s go.’ Those words changed the fate of many,” US Ambassador Jane Hartley said Sunday night.
An American rebound
In Europe there is more support for American action than the headlines suggest, says Bruce Stokes, who is tapped into European attitudes as the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. After recovering from an all-time low, the American public image has taken a hit from interrogation techniques and the NSA spying scandal. But it hasn’t translated into widespread distaste for the US.
“I do think that we carry around in our heads this image of everyone hates us,” Mr. Stokes says. “It is true that we have an image problem in some places, but it’s not true that we have an image problem in Europe anymore.”
In fact, many European nations have a favorable opinion of the US, including in France, Italy, Poland, Britain, and Spain. The outlier is Germany, where American spying allegations have badly damaged trust.
Part of today’s support for the US is a resurgent Russia. While the US might be more hawkish on Russia than many Western European allies, the countries most threatened by Moscow are calling for a stronger NATO presence, as Poland’s new president did in Tallinn, Estonia, on his first foreign visit in office Sunday night.
And the rise of the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group has also renewed support for US intervention. Unlike the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US air campaigns to counter them in Iraq and Syria are backed by majorities in Europe, according to the Pew survey.
Matthieu Jorand, a contract worker from Lorraine at a train station in Paris Monday, says his impression of US soldiers is formed by films and documentaries. “So you do not get the whole picture, just a piece of the puzzle. There are good and bad soldiers, not just in the US but everywhere,” he says. “This time, they are heroes.”
And while they’ve seemed almost shy in press conferences, downplaying the heroic actions assigned to them, they hope to impart their "Let's go" instinct, one that echoes the words, “Let’s roll,” spoken by the airplane passengers on United Flight 93 who attempted to overpower the 9/11 terrorists.
Sadler said Sunday that when he saw his friends charge forward his instinct was: “Do something.”
“Hiding, or sitting back, is not going to accomplish anything," he said. "And the gunman would’ve been successful if my friend Spencer had not gotten up. So I just want that lesson to be learned going forward, in times of, like, terror like that, please do something. Don’t just stand by and watch.”
Alexis Xydias contributed reporting from Paris.