Joyce Terhaar

Wearing the mantle of heroism

French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State. Alek Skarlatos, an Oregon National Guardsman second from left, and U.S. Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, are awarded the French Legion of Honor last week. The three men from Sacramento say they relied on gut instinct and a close bond forged over years of friendship as they took down a heavily armed man on a passenger train heading for Paris.
French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State. Alek Skarlatos, an Oregon National Guardsman second from left, and U.S. Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, are awarded the French Legion of Honor last week. The three men from Sacramento say they relied on gut instinct and a close bond forged over years of friendship as they took down a heavily armed man on a passenger train heading for Paris. The Associated Press

In a matter of moments, three young men from Sacramento created history and changed the course of their lives.

Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos are known to the world now. Their courage in the face of a terrorist attack on a high-speed train bound for Paris saved lives and ensured that Moroccan national Ayoub El-Khazzani is in custody.

It was a decision made in an instant – “Go!” Skarlatos says he told Stone – that was focused on survival and not on consequences. No time to think about what it might be like to live in a world in which they are a household name, a world in which their 15 minutes of fame could last their entire lives. Or that their moment of courage would become a mantle of heroism and all that that entails – the responsibility to be a role model, the reality that their actions will be viewed as good triumphing over evil and that the public, in its gratitude, might expect them to be perfect.

Even lifelong journalists don’t really know what it’s like to be at the center of attention in a media firestorm. Certainly it would be exhausting. We saw that with Tony Sadler, Anthony’s father, and Heidi Hansen, Skarlatos’ mother, who graciously continued to talk to Sacramento reporters even though they were talked out, exhausted from hours of interviews with media from around the globe.

We know it likely means privacy will become a memory for Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, at least for a while. How can it not? They’ve been thanked by President Barack Obama and decorated with the highest award in France, a medal of the Legion of Honor, by French President Francois Hollande. Back home, Mayor Kevin Johnson hosted a news conference for Sadler and his father on Wednesday. Yet to come, a parade for the three men, once they all are back and – who knows? – perhaps they will be honored with a sidewalk star now that we might have our own walk of fame.

Getting back to normal might take some time.

When Sadler flew back to the United States on Tuesday it was on a private jet provided by Columbia Sportswear CEO Timothy Boyle. In Sacramento, he skipped the main gate and avoided the press group that was waiting for him. At Wednesday’s news conference he spoke only for a couple of minutes, saying, “After such a crazy few days it feels good to be back on American soil but especially in Sacramento.

“It’s kind of overwhelming for me, I didn’t expect all this to happen but I just appreciate you all for coming,” he said.

Media reports said Stone and Skarlatos would fly back through New York, where they would stop for interviews. They may well be tired of the attention by the time they return to Sacramento.

Yet everyone wants an interview. “It gives the world hope,” senior editor Deb Anderluh said of their story. People around the world want to know why this potential act of terrorism turned out differently, why in this case someone stepped up.

So many other attacks end differently. The brutal stabbing death aboard a Metro train in Washington, D.C., last month is just one of many. Terrified passengers watched and were victimized themselves. No one saved them. In the face of such relentless violence, is it any wonder that Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos are being celebrated?

The question we’ve debated in The Bee’s newsroom is how best to balance the public’s desire to hear their story against the fact that these three instinctively responded to danger and did not choose, as part of that action, to be in the world spotlight. We’ve done our share of reporting, talking to their friends and family, attending a service Sunday at Oak Park’s Shiloh Baptist Church, where Sadler’s father is pastor and where the minister asked journalists not to interview congregants. Inside the newsroom, editors have debated our reporting approach, with some wanting to park a reporter or photographer outside the Sadler home in hopes of an interview and others arguing to give him privacy since we’d already requested an interview.

When fall classes resume next week, Sadler will return to Sac State, where a digital billboard proclaims that the university is proud of its hometown heroes, naming all three young men, and where university President Robert S. Nelsen said donors are lining up to provide Sadler with scholarship money.

Sadler and his friends will start defining their new normal life as celebrity heroes talked about on Facebook and other social media sites. Sadler’s father told reporters from about 40 media outlets Wednesday that the family planned to designate a spokesman to handle the media crush. He asked for privacy in the meantime, and by Friday handed off press management to Aaron McLear, press secretary to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Perhaps we’re lucky that heroes don’t have time to think before taking action. That action lasts a moment. Then they live with it – and us – their entire lives.

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