On Thursday, June 8, a children’s playground in the picturesque French Alpine town of Annecy was the scene of a ghastly stabbing attack in which four toddlers and two pensioners were seriously wounded by a knife-wielding assailant. A bystander’s video later hit the internet, showing the attacker repeatedly lunging at a child in a stroller, pushing aside a woman who tried to shield the child. “He clearly targeted the babies,” another witness told BFM TV.
But video also showed the attacker being confronted by an unarmed young backpacker who fended him off with one of his two backpacks and then pursued the suspect into the playground and threw one of his bags at him. Subsequently dubbed “le héros au sac a dos,” or “the backpack hero,” by the media, the 24-year-old Catholic who gave only his first name, Henri, said he was on a months-long pilgrimage of France’s cathedrals and happened to be near the playground when he saw the attack begin.
“All I know is that I was not there by chance. On my journey to the cathedrals, I crossed paths with this man and I have acted instinctively. It was unthinkable to do nothing,” the philosophy student told CNEWS. “I let myself be guided by providence and the Virgin Mary. I said my adieu. They would decide what would happen.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Unthinkable to do nothing. This is the hallmark of heroic instinct—the realization that others are in danger and must be protected and the conviction that you are the one to do it, even at risk of your own life. He said his “adieu,” put his fate in God’s hands, and leapt into action.
That heroic instinct and selfless sense of duty to defend the defenseless used to be known, before it became a four-letter word to younger generations, as chivalry. Chivalry, birthed in the Middle Ages in Henri’s own country, once was understood as the expression of the noblest and most honorable qualities of manhood. The 19th-century Irish writer Kenelm Digby called it the “spirit which disposes men to heroic and generous actions and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world.”
But too many young women today consider chivalry, when they consider it at all, to be an oppressive, backward ethos with its roots in militaristic violence and patriarchal sexism. Too many young men view it with equal contempt as servile deference to females and the historical root of feminism. (In doing so, they are making the very common mistake of conflating Christian chivalry with its later-stage, largely literary phase known as “courtly love”; but that’s a conversation for another day.) In fact, chivalry originated as a timeless warrior code that Christianity molded into a martial but moral ideal of courage, honor, and service. Too many young women today consider chivalry, when they consider it at all, to be an oppressive, backward ethos with its roots in militaristic violence and patriarchal sexism.Tweet This
The police in Annecy arrived in time to arrest Abdelmasih Hanoun, a Swedish citizen originally from Syria whose asylum request was recently rejected by French authorities. His motive for the knifing is unclear; the police have ruled out terrorism, although authorities all across the Western world are too often willfully blind about religiously-inspired terrorism.
The suspect’s wife, who is still in Sweden, claims he is Christian; and during the assault he reportedly was shouting, “In the name of Jesus Christ!” Henri’s father, however, said his son, “told me that the Syrian was incoherent, saying lots of strange things in different languages, invoking his father, his mother, all the gods.”
Henri himself disputes the suggestion that the attacker may have been Christian. “It is profoundly un-Christian to attack the vulnerable,” he noted correctly. “The entire Christian civilization on which our country is built is a knightly message to defend widows and orphans. I think that, on the contrary, something very bad inhabited him.”
Something very bad indeed. The suspect’s reported incoherence, speaking in different languages, and invocations to “all the gods” suggests, at the very least, a dark mental illness, if not demonic possession.
In any case, thank God for placing Henri at the scene to do battle with evil. Here is a man in whom the flame of Christian chivalry still burns brightly. (Note that he referred to the “knightly message” of defending the weak.) He has been hailed justly all across the nation as a hero. French President Emmanuel Macron even came to Annecy to visit the victims in the hospital and to meet Henri. Some are calling for “le héros au sac a dos” to receive the Legion d’Honneur, the nation’s highest order of merit, both military and civil.
By tragic contrast, another 24-year-old man in whom chivalry still lives, this one in the United States, is facing manslaughter charges for subduing a mentally ill homeless man who had been raging and threatening violence aboard a crowded subway train back in May.
Former Marine Daniel Penny, a passenger on the subway, recently stated, “The three main threats that he repeated over and over again were ‘I’m going to kill you,’ ‘I’m prepared to go to jail for life’ and ‘I’m willing to die.’” He added, “I was scared for myself but I looked around, there was women and children, he was yelling in their faces saying these threats. I just couldn’t sit still.”
I just couldn’t sit still. This echoes his French counterpart Henri’s assertion that “doing nothing was unthinkable.” Again, this is the essence of chivalric heroism. Penny selflessly came to the defense of those women and children—and of the men who were cowed into inaction—and took the threat down. “I was trying to keep him on the ground until the police came,” Penny explained. “I was praying that the police would come and take this situation over. I didn’t want to be put in that situation, but I couldn’t just sit still and let him carry out these threats.”
Unfortunately, the homeless man, Jordan Neely, later died. Because Neely was black and Penny is white, the incident was swiftly exploited and twisted into yet another racially-charged flashpoint keeping Americans divided, resentful, and angry. In a different cultural moment, he, too, would be hailed as a hero and honored by the president. Instead, he has been smeared as a racist “vigilante” and charged with homicide. America is in desperate need of righting its perverse perceptions of masculinity and heroism; but that, too, is a discussion for another day.
Back in France: asked by the media what he would do now, Henri replied that he feels the need to turn this “horrible” incident into something positive. So, he intends to continue his pilgrimage and show his booming number of social media followers “how the beauty of the cathedrals can nourish us and help us do the right thing.”
Amen, Henri. And long live chivalry.
[Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron (L) talks with Henri (R), the 24-year-old known as the ‘backpack hero.’ Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images]