How do you respond to a tragedy? If you are or would be a national leader, you should respond with statesmanship. Choose your words carefully. Get your brain and your heart working in tandem and in overdrive.
On the night of Sept. 11, enraged by a YouTube film insulting Islam, protesters led by well-armed militants stormed US diplomatic offices in Cairo and Benghazi. The following morning, reports trickled in that the US Ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans had perished in the Benghazi attack.
President Barack Obama’s response was firm and measured. He stressed and repeated, “Justice will be done.” He affirmed America’s respect for all faiths and condemned “efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” With equal vigor, he condemned the violence that the insult provoked and called on the world to stand together against these brutal acts.
The response of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was understandably not as forceful but still correct. He condemned the blasphemy and expressed regret that lives were lost. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states denounced the offending film and at the same time condemned the savage attacks against US embassies. President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, who owes his election to the Islamist vote, had to be prompted on the phone by Obama to denounce the attacks. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai slammed the film but said nothing of the murders.
In Libya, Mohammed Al-Megaryef, president of the ruling General National Congress, apologized to the United States, to the American people and to the rest of the world for what happened. “We expect the world,” he said, “to cooperate with us to confront what is meant [by] this act of cowardice.” Individual Libyans went through the rituals of mourning a loved one.
Indeed, among the biggest losers in this tragedy are the Libyans. Chris Stevens was an Arabic-speaking career diplomat who had earlier fallen in love with Libya as a Peace Corps volunteer. He so robustly supported the Libyan struggle against the Qaddafi dictatorship that people say if he had not done so, the Libyans might still be suffering the savagery of Qaddafi.
On the night that Stevens was killed, he was on a mission of mercy, putting the final touches to a new unit of emergency medicine at the Benghazi Medical Center. When he was rushed to that new unit after the attack, his heart had stopped beating.
In the United States, several Republican eminences joined Obama in standing up for justice and against bigotry. One shameful exception was Republican nominee Mitt Romney whose reaction was that of a political opportunist and a cretin.
First he accused the Obama government of not condemning the attacks and sympathizing with the attackers. Then he defended the anti-Muslim film on grounds of the First Amendment to the American constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
His facts, chronology and law were all wrong. The US embassy in Cairo, not the US government, deplored the bigotry of the film before the attacks were carried out. Right after the attack was reported, the US government lost no time in condemning both the senselessness of the attack and the bigotry of the film.
Then Romney flipped and denounced the anti-Muslim film in terms similar to the statement of Obama. But he still maintained that the film’s criminal insult was protected by the First Amendment.
Romney is a Harvard law graduate. But I have news for him: the First Amendment does not protect speech that creates a “clear and present danger” to society. On that principle, the US Supreme Court has convicted many an accused.
So, how do you respond to tragedy? First, mourn the loss of a good man. And, yes, weep, Libyans. Here was a Stevens. You’ll never have another who loves you as much as he did.