It’s been a month since Ambassador Christopher Stevens—a dynamic and gifted diplomat—was killed in the sudden and terrifying attack on the American consulate in Libya. The State Department continues to gather information, but it’s clear that the violent confrontation was not the result of a spontaneous riot incited by an amateurish anti-Islamic video posted by on YouTube. It was a pre-meditated assault by a terrorist cell operating in Benghazi. Although many have rightly questioned the State Department’s inadequate protection of Stevens, the ambassador himself would not have wanted his legacy overshadowed by these questions; he often opted out of tight security measures. He would want us to remember that he was killed while working to serve the world as well as his country. He approached his job like few others in the Foreign Service do. As he demonstrated from posts in Syria, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya, he sincerely wanted to live with and among the people. This love of people and place was both his greatest strength and his undoing, as the Libyan reaction to his death demonstrates.
Tom Malinowski, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, poses this question: “Could anyone, whether cynic or optimist about the region, have dreamed of a better response to an attack on a diplomatic mission on Arab soil than what happened after the violence in Benghazi?” Unlike tepid condemnations from Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, tens of thousands of ordinary Libyans, many holding signs honoring Ambassador Stevens, marched on the headquarters of the militias believed responsible for the assassination. Malinowski notes that, in addition to the sizable citizens’ protest, Libya’s highest religious leader issued a fatwa against Stevens’ killers and local Islamist leaders openly expressed their desolation. Said one to Malinowski, “You can’t imagine how sad we are.”
Many Libyans felt like French writer and activist Bernard-Henry Lévy who wrote, “The fanatics who assassinated America’s ambassador to Libya…were not only criminals—they were imbeciles.” They killed a man who dreamed big dreams for Libya and who did the difficult work on the ground to free Libyans from Col. Gaddafi’s brutal and bizarre 34-year rule. Ambassador Stevens, according to NY Times writer Steven Erlanger, “traded personal risk for personal contact” so that he could build “a bridge to the tribes and militias who toppled the Libyan dictator.” As a brilliant diplomat and a friend to Libyans, he strove to create a new relationship between the U.S. and Libya.
He sought to usher in this new era of relations with Libya by employing what Stevens’ dear friend, Iranian-American writer Roya Hakakian, calls “his own inner cultural stethoscope.” “No matter where he was,” she recalls, “he could always hear the beating of local life.” Gregarious and curious, he was more interested in hearing others talk than in hogging the spotlight himself. And that, Hakakian explains, positioned him in stark contrast to the usual Mideast stereotype of the greedy, arrogant and dimwitted American. Journalist Noga Tarnopolsky, who knew Stevens from Jerusalem, concurs: “Wherever he was living, he was able to let go of everything else and live that place completely.” Because of this, Stevens sometimes eschewed security measures so he could be the genuine and accessible diplomat he needed to be to remain true to himself. He wanted real human contact. He was not comfortable in his job when barricaded in a heavily guarded embassy.
Washington Post reporters, Ernesto Londono and Abigail Hauslohner, have documented the insufficient security at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. Although an American military team was assigned to protect the new embassy in Tripoli, they were not directed to buttress security at the provisional diplomatic center in the east of the country. Instead, the consulate was defended by a local guard force employed by a British private security firm as part of a paltry contract “worth less than half of what it costs to deploy a single U.S. service member in a war zone for a year.” This unit was easily outgunned on September 11th when militants attacked with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The irony is that Stevens died in the compound he only grudgingly accepted. As a Libyan friend of Stevens told the Washington Post, “Benghazi was his home. He used to run outside the compound. He felt very safe going to markets, to the square, meeting friends for coffee.” These local friendships were vital to him, and they served as a compelling compass in his work. When sending emails out to friends, he often signed his name “Krees” instead of Chris—embracing the pronunciation of his name that his Arab friends used.
Over the past month, I have often found myself thinking about Ambassador “Krees.” What is it about this talented diplomat that has me ruminating about his lonely death—in a city I can barely imagine—thousands of miles away? Certainly his toothy grin, his openness, and his dedication to his work are all appealing aspects of his story. But there’s something else. In the service of his country and our world, Stevens rejoiced in the basic humanity he found in the world’s distant corners. He fiercely believed—and lived his conviction—that he could build community wherever he found himself. Some now call him a martyr or hero or the Indiana Jones of diplomacy. I’m just enormously grateful this lanky Californian saw himself in the faces of all his friends and neighbors the world over. What a wonderful gift to us all.