As the controversy surrounding the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi continues, a poll released yesterday by Public Policy Polling found that of those surveyed who "think Benghazi is the biggest political scandal in American history," an astonishing 39% could not even find Benghazi on a map. Ten percent (10%) said it is in Egypt, 9% in Iran, 6% in Cuba, 5% in Syria, 4% in Iraq, and 1% each in North Korea and Liberia, and 4% were not willing to venture a guess. For the record, Benghazi is in Libya (top right of map below). Remember Libya? That place where the U.S. and its allies intervened back in 2011. It was in the news quite a bit. Just as the fallout from the embassy attack has been.
I am not saying my geography is always perfect, but seriously, come on. And this figure is not just from people who are not following the news and who have never heard of Benghazi in the first place, it is people who think the details surrounding the Benghazi attack and government response was subject to a massive cover up. For a country that is so active in global affairs, this lack of awareness continues to surprise me.
Image credit: Free World Maps
Overall, 58% of those asked correctly identified Benghazi as being in Libya, with over 40% either thinking it was somewhere else or not being sure where it was. Interestingly, Republicans and conservatives in general tended to be most informed regarding Benghazi's location. This makes sense given that Republican politicians and the conservative media has spent more time focusing on the attack and the government response than Democrats have.
Image credit: Public Policy Polling
This latest poll is a further sign that despite being the most powerful country on Earth and being so widely involved in global affairs, there is often a surprising disjuncture between America's international profile and the geographical knowledge of some Americans. Remember the National Geographic Society survey on geographical literacy back in 2006? Questioning young Americans (aged between 18 and 24) it found that 63% could not locate Iraq on a map, while nine in 10- could not find Afghanistan. This despite the near constant news coverage of the wars that America had been fighting in those respective countries for years.
When I was last in America about 12 years ago I was surprised by the number of people I met who had never even heard of the country I was from. Admittedly New Zealand is a pretty small place in the middle of nowhere, and not knowing its location seemed somewhat understandable (although some people thought they could get there by train, or that it was off the coast of Norway). But to not even know that it was a country seemed ridiculous. At least now people I meet have heard of it, although it tends to be populated entirely by hobbits and orcs.
Maybe it was just because I grew up in an isolated country, or because I always had a fascination for geography, but I was always interested in where countries and places were, especially when they were in the news. I know many Americans are informed when it comes to geography and world affairs, indeed many far more so than me. But I have always found it troubling that such significant portions of people in such a globally active and influential country routinely can't find a country they invaded and occupied, or a city where four of their citizens, including an ambassador, were killed, on a map.