On the death of Chris Stevens

Unlike some of my journalist peers, I never sat down and spoke with Ambassador Chris Stevens on the occasions when I was in Libya. I was always busy chasing another story, and he seemed unapproachable behind small phalanx of serious-looking Americans with guns. 

When Senator John McCain came to visit in early 2011, I almost ran into the two of them - and their security detail - coming down a flight of stairs in Benghazi's Tibesti hotel. 

"Thanks for setting that up, ambassador," McCain said.

"Not yet," Stevens replied with a smile, likely referring to the fact that, though he was the top envoy to the rebels at the time, he had yet to be given the job of ambassador.

In retrospect, I should've approached Stevens. By all accounts, he was a notably empathetic career foreign service officer and someone with a genuine love for Libya. I'm sure it would've been a pleasure to speak with him. The United States would do very well to have more people like him representing the country abroad.

But in the worst kind of tragic irony, Stevens, a man who helped Libyan rebels bring down Gaddafi, was killed last night by a mob of well-armed extremists in Benghazi, the same city where he set up camp in 2011.

There are too many rumors and unconfirmed reports to be sure just how and why Stevens was killed, apparently along with two Marine guards and perhaps other Libyan and US staff. Libyan security sources told Al Jazeera English that Stevens died of smoke inhalation, and the two amateur images showing his body last night seem to support that theory. Most witness accounts say the US consulate in Benghazi came under attack by several dozen men armed with small arms and RPGs, who ransacked the consulate and set it on fire.

The group Ansar al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law, was first blamed for the attack. In a press conference this morning, the group said they supported the attack, though they denied having ordered their supporters to participate.

With little exception, my friends and acquaintances in the Arab world have condemned the attack, as well as a separate large protest at the US embassy in Cairo that thankfully left no one injured. Many have expressed shame and embarrassment.

It appears that the pretext for both events was anger at an obscure, poorly made movie called "Innocence of Muslims," produced and funded by a 52-year-old Israeli-American in California named Sam Bacile, which is said to depict the prophet Muhammed as a pedophile, homosexual and slave owner, among other things. You would have been hard pressed, prior to last night, to find anyone outside of Egypt or Libya who had heard of this straight-to-YouTube project.

There were other forces at work as well. Ultraconservative Salafi movements in Egypt had called for a protest at the US embassy, perhaps to coincide with September 11, without even mentioning the movement. The same day, Ayman al-Zawahiri confirmed by video the death earlier this summer of Al Qaeda second-in-command Abu Yahya Al Libi (who, as his name indicates, was Libyan).

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, Salafi groups have suddenly found public space wide open to expound their views. In Egypt, Salaif political coalitions have won large blocs of seats in parliamentary elections. This muscle-flexing has also had its ugly side. On multiple occasions, including yesterday, Egyptian protesters have expressed sympathy and pride in Osama bin Laden, invoking the slain Al Qaeda leader to mock the United States. In Libya, hardline Muslim groups have destroyed religious shrines, and violence against foreign diplomatic personnel - including failed bombings - have begun to escalate.

It will be easy for Americans to draw a straight line from the "Arab Spring" to the frightening specter of mobs lynching the US ambassador. The anger is obvious: "We saved you guys, and this is what we get in return?" I have no doubt that is the narrative that is just now beginning to propagate.

The US presidential election is just about two months away, and the attack line against Obama from Republicans, and perhaps the Romney campaign itself, is obvious: you unilaterally intervened in Libya, you pushed out old allies like Mubarak, and you've gladhanded the Islamists in the months since then. You've been wearing rose-tinted glasses, now look what happened.

Marc Lynch asked a poignant question on Twitter this morning. The United States allowed its perception of Arab Muslims to be shaped by deranged radicals once before; are we going to allow it to happen again? Much will turn on Obama's response. No US ambassador has died in the line of duty since a plane crash in Pakistan in 1988, and none has been killed since 1979 in Afghanistan. This is the most important moment for US policy since February/March 2011.

Some have attempted to place the anger over the film and yesterday's protests in the context of years of fury toward the United States over the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and diplomatic and business practices that were long seen as favoring corrupt, Western-friendly elite over the masses. Legitimate grievances, to be sure. But it risks missing the immediate point that violent acts, most awfully that of murder, cannot be excused by anger over inciteful speech, and that the killing of an ambassador is an incident of the highest order.

Obama will have to take a hard line, but the response from the State Department has so far been subdued. It is, perhaps, an opportunity for Obama to be strong in support of both free expression and Arab aspirations. Those who killed Stevens and the others at the consulate are a minority. The right response takes the power away from the minority and maintains faith in the Libyan (and Egyptian people), hopefully justifying the faith some of them may still have in the United States.