The murder of four U.S. officials in Benghazi yesterday will anger Americans, adding to the cycle of resentment that began with posting on the internet in the United States of a film offensive to Muslims. The United States and NATO saved Benghazi from Muammar Qaddafi’s homicidal intentions. Riot and murder, Americans will think, is no way to show gratitude.
I’ve been in Benghazi twice in the past year, once in September 2011 and again in July 2012. I did not spend my time with the upper echelons. I never met Ambassador Chris Stevens. I walked and talked with people in the street, in polling places, at the drug store, in the market places, in restaurants, at airline ticket counters, at political party offices–anywhere I could find indigenous voices. The Libyans were warm and welcoming, especially after learning that I was an American. During my first trip, I had to duck a few hugs on the street. I’m not the huggy type.
My impression is that most Libyans would agree that America saved them from Qaddafi’s worst instincts. It is not most Libyans who attacked the consulate in Benghazi (or the embassy in Egypt) yesterday. It is a self-selected few. It is also a self-selected few people in America who make anti-Muslim films.
The difference is clear: the right to make offensive films is protected in the United States; there is no right to use violence either in the United States or in Libya. The U.S. government cannot block the making of films, but both the U.S. and Libyan governments are obligated to block and prosecute violent acts.
By all reports, Chris Stevens is a big loss to Libya as well as to the United States. He was a mainstay of international support to the Libyan revolution. I know nothing about his three colleagues killed, but my 21 years of experience in the U.S. Foreign Service tell me the odds are high that they too were credits to their homeland and assets to Libya as well. I did meet our young Consul in Benghazi in July. I am praying for his safety (the names of two of those killed have not been released yet).
These deaths are likely to have an out-sized impact on American relations with Libya as well as the security posture of American diplomatic posts worldwide. This is unfortunate. Our understandable reaction will be to pull our people back into the fortresses we call embassies and consulates, and strengthen their perimeter defenses. That degrades our interactions with the countries in which we are stationed. Nor is there real safety in that direction, as rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades can breach even high and thick walls.
The right approach is to lean more heavily on host governments to provide security. Accounts of the demonstrations in Benghazi and Cairo yesterday suggest less diligence than the Libyan and Egyptian governments are obligated to provide. We would also do ourselves a favor by reducing our excessive numbers of officials stationed abroad and by working more anonymously, but those are subjects for another day.
Today we should mourn those who died, condemn those who killed them, and insist that those who have benefited from American support exert control over the extremists who discredit their revolutions.