The slaying of the U.S. ambassador in Libya: 5 talking points

After attacks by mobs furious over an amateurish anti-Islam video, the Obama administration is shaken by the first killing of the head of a U.S. embassy in decades

Chris Stevens is pictured in April 2011
(Image credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed late Tuesday when an armed Islamist mob stormed the American Consulate in Benghazi, blaming America for an amateurish film, promoted online by Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones, that insults the Prophet Mohammad. Stevens was the first American ambassador to be murdered on duty in more than two decades, and three other American diplomatic staff members were also killed in Tuesday's violence. President Obama strongly condemned the "outrageous attack," and ordered beefed-up security for U.S. diplomats around the world. Leaders of Libya's government, who rose to power after the U.S. helped depose Moammar Gadhafi, promised to hunt down the killers. Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Egypt was also over-run by protesters angered by the anti-Islam film, and the Cairo embassy condemned both the attack and the video that provoked it. The White House later disavowed the Cairo embassy's statement, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was "no justification" for such "senseless violence," saying it was hard to comprehend how this could happen "in a country we helped liberate." What will the explosion of anti-U.S. violence mean for Libya, Egypt, Washington, and the world? Here, five talking points:

1. A mob killed Stevens — but the filmmaker is hardly innocent

After hearing the shocking news that Ambassador Stevens was dead, says Farah Stockman at The Boston Globe, I sat down to watch the trailer of the YouTube movie, Innocence of Muslims, that enraged the crowd that killed him. The video, made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American real estate developer, "felt like a Saturday Night Live spoof," with "terrible acting" and soft-porn-like scenes "depicting the Prophet Mohammad as a sexual deviant and an idiot." To be clear, the "despicable" mob alone is to blame for this senseless killing. "But shouldn't people who knowingly incite violence against the United States — as a crude, thinly-veiled publicity stunt — also be held accountable?"

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2. Libya's experiment with democracy is in trouble

Stevens' death makes it impossible to ignore one of the fundamental problems in post-Gadhafi Libya, says Jonathan Marcus at BBC News: "The country is awash with weapons and armed militias" — some of them Salafist Muslim extremists. The Obama administration is going to want answers from the Libyan government about how such a security breach could happen. But the truth is, militia fighters never surrendered their weapons after the war to topple Gadhafi, and these guys now control entire chunks of the country. The fact that they can commit a crime like this, and the government is powerless to stop them, calls into question "the whole trajectory of Libya's democratic project."

3. This might not be the last attack on U.S. diplomats

The U.S. just "entered a new time of testing in the long war against Islamism," says John Podhoretz at Commentary. It's tempting to use this as an occasion to slam "Barack Obama's weakness and vacillation." But let's put behind us the "strange spectacle of the dreadful initial response" — the U.S. embassy's apology for something the U.S. didn't even do, and the White House's prompt disavowal. Chalk that up to the shock of the attack. From here on out, though, Obama has to react with clarity and resolve, "or there will be more of this. Much more."

4. Obama's options are limited

If Gadhafi were still in charge of Libya, says David Blair at Britain's Telegraph, these murders would be "just cause for a military strike." At the very least, Washington would hit Libya with harsh sanctions. But Libya now has a supposedly "friendly, pro-Western elected government, which owes its very existence to U.S. and Western military muscle." That leaves Obama with "little choice but to insist that America leads the investigation into the incident and that everything is done to hunt down those responsible." He should also insist on "free rein for the FBI and the U.S. military" within Libya. But that means Obama would have to "brush aside any concerns about the country's sovereignty."

5. Obama is actually handling this much as Bush would have

Republicans have predictably seized on the "weak initial statement" out of Cairo to "paint Obama as soft-on-Islam," says Adam Serwer at Mother Jones. Many Republicans, you see, live in a fantasy world where the U.S. "conducts diplomacy the way that Sean Hannity used to treat Alan Colmes." The reality, though, is that a Republican administration probably would have reacted no differently than Obama did. Look to the Bush years: When Western free speech was on the line in 2006, during the backlash to European editorial cartoons denigrating Islam's prophet Mohammad, Bush affirmed the right of free expression, but that the cartoons were "offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive." Sound familiar?

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