The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials on September 11, 2012 calls for reflection. Why did it happen? Was there a conspiracy? Could it have been prevented? What are the implications for U.S. policy towards Libya and Syria? Does it tell us anything about the direction of the Arab Spring?
It is clear that Stevens was not shot dead. He died of inhalation of smoke in a safe room. Some Libyans, not U.S. security, found him alive, and rushed him to the hospital where he was declared dead. It is painfully ironic that Stevens was due to visit the same hospital the next morning to discuss plans to upgrade the emergency section there with U.S. assistance.
Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif has stated there was a conspiracy and that foreigners had come in. US Ambassador Susan Rice has said that it was probably “spontaneous and unplanned.” We have to wait for the facts to be revealed through the on-going investigations.
Could it have been prevented? Yes. The U.S. State Department advised its embassy in Cairo of the possibility of anti-U.S. demonstrations as the Egyptian television was disseminating information on the video made in California insulting the Prophet. Why was the embassy in Libya not informed? Is not Egyptian television seen in Libya? The attack on the consulate in Benghazi occurred only after Libyans saw on television what was happening in Cairo. A forewarned Stevens might have taken proper precautions. Why wasn’t proper security provided to the consulate despite a recent attack on a UK diplomat?
There is failure also on the part of FBI and other agencies. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who made the film was on parole and debarred from using the internet. An alert agency would have kept an eye on him and his activities and picked him up for violation of parole terms. There was no need to violate the freedom of expression granted in the First Amendment. It does not need any rocket science to anticipate that the Islamic world would have reacted in a violent manner to such a film.
However, it is necessary to raise a question about the First Amendment. Let us conduct a thought experiment: Suppose, during the Second World War an association of Americans of German origins had made a video praising Hitler and arguing that U.S. should enter into talks with him. What action would President Franklin D. Roosevelt have taken?
That a similar video about Jesus Christ made in Saudi Arabia would not have led to the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Washington is beside the point. In the real world, Muslims are extremely sensitive to any disrespectful reference to their Prophet.
There is much dismay in the Western media about the reason for what has happened: How many of the protesters would have seen the video? How can they turn violent about a video they have not seen? Both questions show profound ignorance of the psychology of Muslims. If they hear that the Prophet has been insulted, they are not going to look for proof before reacting. Most of them live in societies where no film can be made without permission of the government. Therefore, they believe that President Obama had permitted the making of the film.
It is to be noted that so far Mitt Romney has failed to take electoral advantage. His rather hasty and not well considered reaction did not enhance his electability. Will U.S. policy towards the Arab Spring change? It has been argued that if the U.S. had not intervened militarily in Libya, the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, would have remained in power and Ambassador Stevens would not have died. Yes, the argument is right. If Gaddafi had remained in power, Stevens would not have gone there. But the implication of the argument is that Gaddafi was secular and he kept the Islamic extremists under check. Shall we then conclude that a dictator who keeps extremists under check should remain forever? Even if he employs mercenaries to kill his own people?
India did the wise thing by making Google withdraw the film. There is no absolute right to freedom of expression. Public order and safety of the public are of paramount importance and there is no question of confusing insane hate speech with freedom of expression.
Another thought experiment: Suppose the film had been made in Denmark; Danish embassies would have been attacked and not U.S. embassies. It follows that what has happened is not exactly a wave of anti-Americanism.
There is no logic in changing U.S. policy towards Libya or Syria because a few men were able to outwit the security and cause the death of U.S. ambassador. The vast majority of Libyans have expressed their disapproval of the killing.
Ambassador K. P. Fabian served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, and is currently the President of AFPRO (Action For Food Production) and IGSSS (Indo-Global Social Service Society).
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