A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Thoughts On The Murder Of 4 American Diplomats In Libya

memorial pin state departmentOn Tuesday night, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four American diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in Libya when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their vehicle in Benghazi, Libya. They were fleeing the U.S. consulate, which was attacked by a Salafi Islamist mob that was outraged over a film that, according to the Telegraph, depicted the Prophet Mohammed as “a fraud, a womanizer and a madman” and “showed him having sex and calling for massacres.”

Protestors also made it over the wall at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but luckily no one there was hurt. The film, which was also being promoted by the infamous Koran-burning Pastor, Terry Jones, was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American who has been described in the press as “unrepentant,” “defiant,” and “unapologetic.”

Bacile told the Associated Press that he made the film with $5 million in backing from 100 Jewish donors and declined to accept any responsibility for the attack.

“I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” he said. “America should do something to change it.”

When tragedies like this one occur, every current and former Foreign Service Officer (FSO), myself included, feels the loss. The Foreign Service is a family, a big dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless, and everyone grieves along with these families.

The tragedy underscores the risks FSOs and their family members take in serving their countries overseas. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) maintains two plaques inside the State Department’s Harry S. Truman building that contain the names of 236 diplomats who have perished while serving their country overseas.

The media often derides American embassies and consulates overseas as “fortresses” but when I was in the Foreign Service, I wanted our missions to be as secure as possible. All three of the overseas posts where I served were deemed insecure facilities that needed to be replaced, and in Skopje, the wing of the embassy that my wife worked in was deemed particularly vulnerable. (A new embassy has since opened there) I would invite any journalist that wants to criticize American security to go work in one of these facilities and see if their perspective changes.

Several years ago, I remember strolling right into the Hungarian embassy in Washington with no security in sight and thinking how nice it would be to be from a country that wasn’t a target for terrorists and other evildoers. I wouldn’t trade my citizenship for that of any other country, but I wish that the Sam Bacile’s and Terry Jones’s of the world would understand how their actions put Americans overseas in danger.

They should be ashamed of themselves, but obviously the blame for this incident goes directly to the evil perpetrators of the crime itself. Let’s hope they are brought to swift justice and are treated in the harshest way imaginable. Many on the right will recoil at the idea of blaming anti-Islam crusaders like Bacile and Jones. Mitt Romney hasn’t commented on the video itself but claimed that President Obama “sympathized with the protesters.

Romney apparently objected to an apparently unauthorized statement put out by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, hours before they were under siege. Governor Romney hasn’t spent much time in the Middle East and other parts of the world where being an American carries great risks and apparently isn’t aware of the need to try to keep a lid on the protests that have occurred around the Muslim World.

We know from past experience that ultra-conservative Muslims around the world don’t simply shrug off attacks on the Prophet Mohammed as the work of fringe zealots and yet people like Bacile continue to stir the pot, oblivious to the risks and the damage their work does to our country’s image. Why?

I didn’t know Ambassador Stevens, but some of my former colleagues did and from what I can gather, he was an outstanding diplomat and an all around great guy. One described him on Facebook as a “genuinely nice person,” “a gifted diplomat, and a good man,” while another wrote that he was “a peacemaker” and “one of (our) best Middle East diplomats,” who was a “scholar, a jogger, and a mentor.”

The State Department also released the identity of one of the other three victims. He was Sean Smith, an Information Management Officer who was a father of two and a ten-year Foreign Service veteran with previous postings in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal, and most recently the Hague.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all of the victims of this horrific tragedy. Their service, and the work done by everyone in the Foreign Service tends to go practically unnoticed in a country that takes too much for granted.

The public tends to think of diplomats as highbrow types who spend their time sipping cocktails in the European capitals, oblivious to the reality that many, if not most, are hunkered down in downright unpleasant places doing important, sometimes dangerous work.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to remind us to be thankful for the sacrifices they make for our country, but as we grieve along with their families, we ought to also thank all those who serve their country overseas – soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, everyone – for their service.

UPDATE: News reports indicate that the Libyan attackers may have used the protests over the anti-Muslim film as cover to launch their attack on the consulate and the American FSO’s who died may have been in the compound, rather than fleeing in a vehicle. It will probably be months before we know exactly what went down but I stand by what I wrote this morning. The attackers are to blame but the filmaker/s should be ashamed of themselves for putting Americans at risk. News outlets have also called into question the identity of Sam Bacile, which may be a pseudonym. Romney, meanwhile, is standing by his ludicrous, slimy, uninformed criticism of the President, which has in some ways overshadowed the tragedy itself.

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