by Andy Jones
Near the start of the 1992 film Patriot Games, retired CIA agent Jack Ryan is vacationing with his family in London when he encounters members of a radical IRA splinter group attacking and attempting to kidnap members of the British royal family. An American, Ryan charges into the gunfight, tackles and disarms one of the terrorists, shoots another, and disrupts the plot before the authorities arrive to restore order. The result of this heroism? The Queen of England makes him a member of The Royal Victorian Order, which I found a strange honor for an American, and a number of armed and vengeful Irishmen seek to have a word with him back in the states. As I recently discovered, Patriot Games is available for streaming on Netflix.
Saving royals is typical for an American in Europe, the Tom Clancy film seems to tell us. This self-congratulatory idea of “American exceptionalism” comes up in high school AP American history classes, and in Republican debates. Our country was “conceived in liberty,” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address argues, and since then (and before, as we can see in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville), pundits have asserted that our country is like that “city upon a hill” whose light cannot be hidden.
Of course, doesn’t every country think it is special, and perhaps the most special? History has presented us with (some) haughty Parisians who scoffed at all others, (some) bellicose Germans who believed that a master race of proto-Aryans came were descended from residents of Atlantis, and (some) citizens of homogeneous Japan who believe that outsider visitors cannot act with sufficient decorum and respect. Our pop culture favorites have commented upon such nationalistic chauvinism, as well. The national anthem sung by Borat reminds us that “Kazakhstan [is the] number one exporter of potassium! Other countries have inferior potassium.” We smile as we agree with Geoff Mulgan, the Chief Executive of the (British) National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, who once said, “All of nationalism can be understood as a kind of collective narcissism.”
That said, I found myself swelling with nationalistic pride this past weekend when reading about the young men from Sacramento who, like Jack Ryan in Patriot Games, stepped up to stop the terrorists when Europeans needed them to. As you no doubt have heard, three locals are being celebrated by the heads of the U.S. and French governments because of their quick thinking. This is how the story began in Saturday’s Sacramento Bee:
Three childhood friends from the Sacramento area were hailed as international heroes Saturday after thwarting a gunman armed with an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. French officials said the man was planning mass murder on a high-speed train bound from Amsterdam to Paris.
Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, who had known each other since middle school, said they first heard shattering glass, then realized a man was brandishing an assault rifle in the train aisle. They jumped into action.
“My friend Alek just told Spencer, ‘Go get him,’” and “Spencer gets up in a split second and runs down the car and arrests the guy before he can shoot,” Sadler told reporters Saturday.
The three men, with help from another passenger, tackled the gunman, wrestled him to the ground, then hogtied him, saving themselves and other passengers.
As I said to my wife yesterday, it was a good thing that three Americans were nearby when a terrorist was loading his guns and looking for trouble. Peggy Noonan once wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world; it attempts to be a force for good because it is exceptional.”
It’s not every day that I agree with Peggy Noonan or the Wall Street Journal, but when it comes to heroic and exceptional young men from the Central Valley of California, I find myself swelling with patriotic pride and gratitude.