When passions are inflamed in the Middle East, Friday is almost never a good day.
U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the world will be on alert today — and into the future — until a crisis sparked in part by Internet airings of a provocative anti-Muslim movie trailer subsides. In a culture that doesn’t understand the concept of freedom of expression — even repugnant expression — guaranteed by the First Amendment, radical elements find it easy to whip a willing crowd into an anti-America frenzy.
That’s part of what happened in Libya Tuesday, although signs point to a more sophisticated plan by terrorists to use the crowd and the anniversary of 9/11 to launch a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and on a safe house to which U.S. personnel had been evacuated.
U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens, information technology specialist Sean Smith and two other Americans died in the assaults, carried out over a four-hour period with guns, mortars and grenades. Eight Libyans were injured.
There is evidence that someone within the Libyan security forces gave the militants information about the safe house. This had the outward signs of a popular protest, but the trappings of a military operation.
Reuters reported that Western officials were investigating a possible link with a paramilitary training camp about 100 miles south of the eastern Libyan town of Derna, near the Egyptian border. If intelligence proves that to be true, a surgical strike against that target would be justified — by whoever carried it out.
Attacks can’t be ignored
No nation can tolerate attacks against diplomatic targets.
That Stevens was the target in this attack is tragically ironic because he had a reputation as a supporter of democratic government, not only in Libya but throughout his career. He had been based in Benghazi during the Libyan revolt, which was backed by the U.S. and NATO, and became the ambassador to Libya in May. He had gone from Tripoli, where a unit of Marines protects the U.S. Embassy, to the less-guarded Benghazi consulate to open a Libyan-American cultural center, a Libyan legislator told a local television station.
The United States has been a historic champion of democracy throughout the world, but that has not assured the United States of popularity in new democracies, especially in the Middle East and now in Northern Africa.
That has been, is and will be a challenge for any U.S. president, the State Department and the diplomats and support staff on the ground.
A complicating factor is that while repressive regimes in Egypt, Libya and Yemen have been toppled, the economic conditions that helped spur poplar revolts there have not changed. The demonstrators against those rulers were often young, angry and unemployed men — as have been the demonstrators outside U.S. embassies this week.
Their anger makes them easily manipulated, and that is a problem not only for the United States, but for the governments responsible for protecting diplomats and their staffs, be they from the United States or any other nation.
In 2006 an estimated 50 people died in riots in the Middle East, Africa and Asia that were sparked by publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting Mohammed.
The United States has already paid a terrible price in this latest backlash against an unflattering portrayal of the prophet. Every country with a predominantly Muslim population faces a challenge of controlling demonstrations in the immediate future to avoid more bloodshed.
In the meantime, U.S. intelligence agencies will be building a case against those who apparently exploited these demonstrations as a cover for their military operations. And when that information is assembled, it will be the responsibility of President Barack Obama to see that justice is done — as he has vowed to do.