John Christopher Stevens: US Ambassador's Murder Raises Some Uncomfortable Questions

In breaking news on Wednesday morning, the U.S. learned that one of the Americans killed in Tuesday's attack on the United States consular office in Benghazi, Libya was none other than U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Stevens was apparently killed while trying to flee the besieged consulate when his car was struck by at least one rocket-propelled grenade. The attack on the Benghazi consulate came on the same day that a mob descended on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, causing damage to the embassy. Thankfully, at this point there are no reports of deaths or injuries among American personnel in Cairo.

What makes Ambassador Stevens' death even more tragic is that he hoped to use his position as ambassador to build strong ties between the new post-Gadhafi Libya and the United States. In May, Stevens expressed his excitement about his new role in a video introducing himself to the Libyan people. Before becoming an ambassador, Stevens had served as the State Department representative to Libya's National Transitional Council (the de facto rebel government) in Benghazi.

The twin attacks were supposedly sparked by an American-made film that conservative Muslims say is insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. Calling the piece of media in question a “film,” though, is being generous. According to the New York Times, the film is actually an 14-minute trailer video released on YouTube. Commentators on the BBC said the video was embarrassingly amateurish, much like the angry rant of a teenager. 

And yet, this piece of internet nonsense was able to spark violent protests in two countries, and it led to the death of an American ambassador. The natural questions to ask now are: why and how did these protests take place? What lessons should we learn about the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the wake of Stevens' death?

News outlets have noted that the video has been up on YouTube for several weeks, yet the protests about it only occurred yesterday. That these protests happened outside two American installations in two countries at roughly the same time points to a level of organization behind  the protests.

It is clear that the leaders of the protests are taking advantage of the lack of knowledge of American society among the angry masses that they gathered. Decades of life under authoritarian governments in Egypt and Libya have left their citizens ignorant of the concept of freedom of expression. They don't realize that the First Amendment, coupled with the megaphone of the internet, allows any American to broadcast their own special brand of idiocy to the world.

Rather, they assume that if an American is allowed to post something on the internet, it is because it has been sanctioned by the government. Therefore, they assume, the official policy of the United States government is to insult the Prophet Mohammed.

In the days to come, we are sure to hear that the attacks were just the actions of an extremist fringe, that they do not represent the will of a majority of the Egyptian or Libyan people or their governments. This statement, however, is only partially true.

While the masses and their governments in both countries may not agree with these extremist mobs, they are also not willing to fully condemn or stand up to them. In fact, it could be argued that post-revolution, both countries are becoming disturbingly comfortable with a strain of extremist Islam that was largely absent under the countries' former leadership.

For example, last week several Sufi shrines were destroyed in Tripoli. The Sufi are a branch of Islam that venerates certain individuals as saints, constructing shrines to them and performing religious services in their honor. More conservative branches of Sunni Islam view the Sufis as mystical heretics. The destruction of the Sufi saints' shrines occurred under the noses of the Libyan government, which did nothing to stop their destruction. In this way, they failed to stand up to the extremists, just as they failed to prevent the assault on the American consulate in Benghazi.

This situation brings to mind a quote attributed to China's Chairman Mao during his insurgent days. Mao compared insurgents operating within the general populace to fish swimming in the sea. What Mao meant was that while most people will not join in with an insurgent or extremist movement, such movements can only operate with the tacit approval of the people.

While I am sure that most Benghazis, or the Libyan government, would not be willing to attack an American facility and murder an American diplomat, the extremists that did carry out these actions were only able to do so because their presence within Libya and Egypt is currently tolerated by the masses.

The actions in Cairo and Benghazi on Tuesday also made me remember this editorial from the Moscow Times from a few weeks ago, which discussed Russian opposition to Western intervention in Syria. 

While Russian attempts to block action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the United Nations is portrayed in the West as a simple act of Russian intransigence, the Russians unsurprisingly take a different view.  They look at Western support for the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria and think that the governments of the West are naïve at best or simply crazy at worst.

The Russian logic boils down to a simple question: why would you support the overthrow of a secular autocrat — even an admittedly brutal autocrat — in favor of an ill-defined “rebel” movement that clearly includes extremist Islamist elements? They look to the chaos that followed the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, chaos that included the rise of a violent al-Qaeda-linked Islamist movement, as proof of their concern.

The actions in Libya and Egypt yesterday, along with the apparent willingness of the populations and governments to allow them to occur, only offers up more evidence in favor of the uncomfortable question posed by the Russians, a question that has largely failed to have been discussed among Western society, since our default position is autocracy = bad, vaguely democratic uprisings = good. 

Egypt and Libya are already started down the path of revolution, overthrow and aftermath. It is worth keeping Tuesday's events in mind as calls to aid the rebel movement in Syria, which we know includes elements sympathetic to al-Qaeda, grow louder.