Opinion

David Rohde

Honoring a slain ambassador

By David Rohde
September 13, 2012

Whoever murdered Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staff in Libya this week is our enemy. And so are the bigots who made a lurid amateur video denigrating Islam.

Whether the video prompted the deadly attack in Libya is not yet known. Militant groups may have planned the killings. And the two acts are not equivalent: murdering four people is unjustifiable and incomparably worse than making an insulting video.

But both acts are the products of delusional extremists trying to drive a wedge between the United States and the Islamic world. Muslim and Christian extremists may seem to have nothing in common, but they are united in their desire to divide us. Stevens, an affable 52-year-old diplomat famed for his humility, integrity and willingness to listen, would not want us to help them, according to colleagues and friends.

 

Mark Ward, a senior USAID and State Department official who worked with Stevens in Libya, said his wishes would be clear. “He would say to the American people please don’t turn your back on Libya,” Ward said in an interview Wednesday. “They’ve been through 40 terrible years, they’ve just held elections and they’ve rejected extremism. This is absolutely not the time to let a couple of lunatics throw us off our resolve.”

According to Ward, Stevens’ message to Libyans would be to arrest the suspected perpetrators, provide them with defense lawyers and give them a fair trial. ’’Do the right thing,’” Ward said of the way to honor Stevens. “If there is one thing [his] life should stand for, let it stand for the rule of law.”

Fred Abrahams, a senior advisor with Human Rights Watch who frequently met with Stevens while working in Libya, agreed. He said the ambassador wasn’t naïve about the country’s vast problems but saw Gaddafi’s overthrow as historic opportunity to establish the rule of law Libyans yearned for after 42-years of chaotic Gaddafi rule.

“Just as the U.S. should not be blamed for the offensive film of a few deluded whackos, Libya should not be blamed for the unjustified violence of a few ignorant extremists,” Abrahams said in an email Thursday. “And maybe this will spur the Libyan government to rein in the militias that have troubled Libya since Gaddafi’s fall — Chris would have wanted that.”

Abrahams and Ward pointed out that the Libyan government condemned Stevens’ killing and that many Libyans – including Islamists – have as well. He and Ward both pointed to the country’s July elections as a more accurate expression of the country’s popular will.

At the ballot box, conservative Islamic religious parties fared comparatively poorly in Libya after sweeping post-Arab Spring elections in Tunisia and Egypt. A coalition of Libyan liberals led by war-time opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril won 39 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties in the new national assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party came in second with 17 seats.

To the surprise of many observers, Jibril’s liberals won seat in areas considered conservative strongholds. Thirty-two women won seats as well. The ultimate balance of power, though, will be decided by 120 candidates who won seats reserved for independents.

The reaction from other corners has been disappointing. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued statements that condemned the video more forcefully than they did the killings of the diplomats. The tepid responses are unjustifiable and reflect a widespread assumption among conservative Muslims that the United States government tacitly supports the video. In societies where leaders have tightly controlled public debate for decades, American explanations about the need for freedom of speech are viewed skeptically.

And in the United States, a predictably petty campaign spat emerged, with Mitt Romney and other conservatives accusing President Obama of responding to the attacks too meekly. Liberals, in turn, ridiculed Romney and questioned his mental state.

Among average Americans, the murder of Stevens is likely to reinforce a widespread desire for the United States to get out – and get out now – of the Middle East. After losing 7,978 American lives and at least $1.2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are understandably exhausted with the region.

I agree that our military invasions have been disastrous but believe there are other tools we can use, from diplomacy to trade to technology, to support moderate Muslims. A historic struggle between conservatives and liberals is underway across the Islamic world. It is vital that the United States find a way to more consistently, cheaply and effective support moderates in the region.

In many ways, Stevens embodied that new approach. The northern California native worked as Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and then gave up a career as an international trade lawyer to become a diplomat. He then spent twenty years working as a diplomat across the Middle East. In Libya, he coordinated aid to the Libyan opposition during the 2011 uprising. After becoming ambassador, he spent hours listening to Libyans and differentiating among them.

“He represented what you hoped would be the model of a new American diplomat,” said Ward, the former colleague. “He was much happier rolling his sleeves up and going to work and talking to Libyans.”

The best way to honor Stevens is to bring the perpetrators to justice, condemn the bigotry on all sides and increase our interaction with the Muslim world, not decrease it. That is the most powerful way to counter the conspiracy theories, prejudice and stereotypes spawned by extremists. Bigots on both sides want us to fear, dehumanize and denigrate each other.

Three weeks before he died, Stevens re-opened the American consulate in Tripoli and announced that visas would be issued to hundreds of Libyan businessmen, journalists and students to visit the United States. He said that increasing trade, educational ties and interaction between the two countries was vital.

“Relationships between governments are important, but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding,” he said. “So, my message to Libyans today is ahlan wasahlan bikum. You are welcome to visit America, and there’s the door!”

We should open doors, not close them.

PHOTO: Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, sits down at a meeting discussing cooperation between the two countries on issues of human rights, in Tripoli June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Anis Mili

Comments
26 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Someone had better champion the right of free speech soon in this debacle before we all become apologists for religious extremism. And it is particularly disturbing speech that we must champion, as it is easy to tolerate the speech that everyone agrees with. The content of the video that sparked this barbaric, uncivilized question shouldn’t even be a factor in the debate — it’s irrelevant. In a civilized nation, we protect the right of bigots and idiots to speak almost anything they like. We fight ignorant and idiotic speech with…more speech! Not with unhinged, unthinking mob violence. Not with murder. Not with crazed chanting that “god” dictated the murder. We better start understanding that this is nothing but a free speech issue and nothing to do with religious freedom — if we don’t, we’ve already lost.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

Ambassador Christopher Stevens earned my respect for his passion, understanding and interaction with the local people. This is the best form of diplomatic mission which should be modeled upon. It is not only a loss for America, but also for Lybia and may be the entire Arab world.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

Ambassador Christopher Stevens earned my respect for his passion, understanding and interaction with the local people. This is the best form of diplomatic mission which should be modeled upon. It is not only a loss for America, but also for Lybia and may be the entire Arab world.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

Ambassador Christopher Stevens earned my respect for his passion, understanding and interaction with the local people. This is the best form of diplomatic mission which should be modeled upon. It is not only a loss for America, but also for Lybia and may be the entire Arab world.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

Ambassador Christopher Stevens earned my respect for his passion, understanding and interaction with the local people. This is the best form of diplomatic mission which should be modeled upon. It is not only a loss for America, but also for Lybia and may be the entire Arab world.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

Ambassador Christopher Stevens earned my respect for his passion, understanding and interaction with the local people. This is the best form of diplomatic mission which should be modeled upon. It is not only a loss for America, but also for Lybia and may be the entire Arab world.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

A good deal of our problem is that we we send mixed messages to the Islamic world because we have too few clear policies that are consistently applied. And the messages that we send to governments do not penetrate to the people. A large number Islamic ‘people-in-the-street’ seem to operate as though they have been downtrodden by the West for years, and that this ‘open-wound’ feeling gives them the right to attack anyone, anywhere if they feel strongly enough. The West is not to blame for the endless series of dictatorial regimes that have controlled the Islamic countries for years. And the West is not to blame for the actions of individual idiots. The idea that ‘I am insulted, therefore I can kill someone’ seems to be deeply rooted in much of Middle Eastern and North African culture. Perhaps it is time to strongly and consistently emphasize the fact that killing Americans, burning American flags, and attacking American embassies insults us, and we will retaliate by indiscriminate killings of any protesters who show up at embassies with spurious ‘grievances’. I note that, despite the Islamic world’s hatred of the Israeli nation, very few of their embassies are ever attacked. That is because they are fortresses, and the Israelis defend them with maximum military power. We should do the same.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive
 

Someone had better champion the right of free speech soon in this debacle before we all become apologists for religious extremism. And it is particularly disturbing speech that we must champion, as it is easy to tolerate the speech that everyone agrees with. The content of the video that sparked this barbaric, uncivilized question shouldn’t even be a factor in the debate — it’s irrelevant. In a civilized nation, we protect the right of bigots and idiots to speak almost anything they like. We fight ignorant and idiotic speech with…more speech! Not with unhinged, unthinking mob violence. Not with murder. Not with crazed chanting that “god” dictated the murder. We better start understanding that this is nothing but a free speech issue and nothing to do with religious freedom — if we don’t, we’ve already lost.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

Someone had better champion the right of free speech soon in this debacle before we all become apologists for religious extremism. And it is particularly disturbing speech that we must champion, as it is easy to tolerate the speech that everyone agrees with. The content of the video that sparked this barbaric, uncivilized question shouldn’t even be a factor in the debate — it’s irrelevant. In a civilized nation, we protect the right of bigots and idiots to speak almost anything they like. We fight ignorant and idiotic speech with…more speech! Not with unhinged, unthinking mob violence. Not with murder. Not with crazed chanting that “god” dictated the murder. We better start understanding that this is nothing but a free speech issue and nothing to do with religious freedom — if we don’t, we’ve already lost.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

test

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

Someone had better champion the right of free speech soon in this debacle before we all become apologists for religious extremism. And it is particularly disturbing speech that we must champion, as it is easy to tolerate the speech that everyone agrees with. The content of the video that sparked this barbaric, uncivilized question shouldn’t even be a factor in the debate — it’s irrelevant. In a civilized nation, we protect the right of bigots and idiots to speak almost anything they like. We fight ignorant and idiotic speech with…more speech! Not with unhinged, unthinking mob violence. Not with murder. Not with crazed chanting that “god” dictated the murder. We better start understanding that this is nothing but a free speech issue and nothing to do with religious freedom — if we don’t, we’ve already lost.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

test

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

a tragic loss of a great person.

Posted by nouh | Report as abusive
 

test

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

test

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

I understand the need to “soothe the savage beasts,” but someone had better champion the right of free speech soon in this debacle before we all become apologists for religious extremism. Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental bedrocks of American culture, and I have been shocked at how quickly we have abandoned it in the face of muslim violence. Where are the liberal champions of free speech that we see every day in America?? The freedom to speak one’s mind must be protected and brave people must provide that protection. And it is particularly disturbing speech that we must champion, as it is easy to tolerate the speech that everyone agrees with. In the US, we have spent millions of dollars to protect the Klu Klux Klan when it marched in small towns across the country. The content of the video that sparked this barbaric, uncivilized reaction shouldn’t even be a factor in the debate — it’s irrelevant. In a civilized nation, we protect the right of bigots and idiots to speak almost anything they like. We fight ignorant and idiotic speech with…more speech! Not with unhinged, unthinking mob violence. Not with murder. Not with crazed chanting that “god” ordered the mob to murder. We better start understanding that this is nothing but a free speech issue and has nothing to do with religious freedom — if we don’t, we’ve already lost.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

Thank you for this wonderful opinion piece; it says it all and so beautifully. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive
 

Thank you for this wonderful opinion piece; it says it all and so beautifully. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive
 

Thank you for this wonderful opinion piece; it says it all and so beautifully. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive
 

I am a Chinese. I do appreciate and respect America’s core values. But I believe always everything should have limits including freedoms of speech and expression. We should always understand and respect each other for advoiding conflicts. A person controlling his words and actions without offending others does not mean that person has lost his freedom. It is just being nice. Self-control, respecting other people’s culture, religion, way os life etc, and being nice are a matter of attitude that will certainly reduce conflict.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

I am a Chinese. I do appreciate and respect America’s core values. But I believe always everything should have limits including freedoms of speech and expression. We should always understand and respect each other for advoiding conflicts. A person controlling his words and actions without offending others does not mean that person has lost his freedom. It is just being nice. Self-control, respecting other people’s culture, religion, way of life etc, and being nice are a matter of attitude that will certainly reduce conflict.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

I understand the need to “soothe the savage beasts,” but someone had better champion the right of free speech soon in this debacle before we all become apologists for religious extremism. Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental bedrocks of American culture, and I have been shocked at how quickly we have abandoned it in the face of muslim violence. Where are the liberal champions of free speech that we see every day in America?? The freedom to speak one’s mind must be protected and brave people must provide that protection. And it is particularly disturbing speech that we must champion, as it is easy to tolerate the speech that everyone agrees with. In the US, we have spent millions of dollars to protect the Klu Klux Klan when it marched in small towns across the country. The content of the video that sparked this barbaric, uncivilized reaction shouldn’t even be a factor in the debate — it’s irrelevant. In a civilized nation, we protect the right of bigots and idiots to speak almost anything they like. We fight ignorant and idiotic speech with…more speech! Not with unhinged, unthinking mob violence. Not with murder. Not with crazed chanting that “god” ordered the mob to murder. We better start understanding that this is nothing but a free speech issue and has nothing to do with religious freedom — if we don’t, we’ve already lost.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive
 

I fully support freedoms of speech and expression. However I also believe that everything should have limits incluing freedom of speech.

For instance, some people controlling or astricting themselves in order not to offending others does not mean that they lose their freedom. It is just being nice. Nice people always almost have no or less conflicts with other people. Being nice will therefore mitigate conflicts and even this sort of tragedy.

Being nice is a matter of attitude.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

“..our resolve…”

A grand soundbite, but IMO a rather poor substitute for an ACTUAL, COHERENT foreign policy.

Can’t blame the Arabs for not understanding the U.S. agenda in the ME, because President Obama himself seemingly cannot put it into words.

I hope you’re soon done ‘playing’ President Mr. Obama, because frankly, you really suck at it. I probably regret GW Bush as much as anyone, but can you IMAGINE if Obama was President on Sept 11, 2001? I shudder at the thought.

Posted by pax_vobiscum | Report as abusive
 

Im sorry to inform the poeple that have left comments that no, the West IS to blame for the dictatorships that existed in these countries, because we PUT THEM IN POWER!!!
So as for the protests, you will have to deal with them for the next 100 years, until the wrongs that have been done by the West are corrected.
However much the killing of the ambassador was horrible, it was not the work of the protesters, it was Al-Qaeda.
Besides, I thought people are free to protest? Most of the protests have occured without incident (remember there were protests in over 50 countries)I guess we only support the protests we like, not the ones we don’t like.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive
 

“Whoever murdered Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staff in Libya this week is our enemy. And so are the bigots who made a lurid amateur video denigrating Islam.”

Rohdes by conflating murderers as enemies with video makers is astounding.

Where were you Mr. Rohdes in condeming the Broadway show “The Book of Mormon”.

You sir are a true jack ass.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive
 

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