Americans and Libyans are mourning the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his American colleagues following a vicious attack Tuesday on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
A mob with guns and rocket-propelled grenades apparently was reacting to "Innocence of Muslims," an obscure film by Israeli Sam Bacile, a California real estate developer. Video excerpts, which portray Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a scurrilous fashion, have appeared on YouTube.
Hundreds firebombed the consulate in Benghazi, also killing several Libyan guards, while thousands of protesters marched on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down an American flag. The Libya attack was apparently launched by an extreme Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, and some U.S. officials believe it may have been planned to coincide with Tuesday's 9/11 anniversary.
Libyan and Egyptian authorities, who are responsible for the security of consulates and embassies in their countries, failed to provide adequately for the safety of the Americans and their installations.
The government in Libya is still recovering from the change of power, backed by the United States, from dictator Moammar Gadhafi to the present inchoate regime. It has held elections and is in the process of writing a constitution.
President Barack Obama vowed to bring the killers to justice and Libya's transitional government expressed its deepest condolences.
Where does that leave the United States? First, at this time of grieving, Americans will have no patience for any of the presidential or other candidates taking advantage of the tragedy to score political points off the opposition. Unfortunately, the campaigns of both Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney were sniping at each other over this on Wednesday.
Second, security at U.S. diplomatic posts across the Muslim world should be tightened, as the White House demanded Wednesday, but their staff should not be withdrawn. Nevertheless, the State Department ordered all "nonemergency" personnel out of Libya. Elsewhere, including in Egypt, American diplomats need to stand firm in the face of increased danger and demonstrate the strength of U.S. institutions as America carries out democratic elections.
Third, while we staunchly defend freedom of expression, those who spew hate speech and other inciteful content must consider the ramifications of their acts. As to those who take great offense and want to respond, their actions must not take the form of killing and mayhem.
Americans are used to seeing their soldiers die, unfortunately, as in Afghanistan where the toll stands at more than 1,900. But Tuesday's attack is a reminder that violence has also claimed a share of the nation's diplomats, including five ambassadors between 1968 and 1979. Such service is nothing to be taken for granted, and the loss of the four Americans in Libya must be deeply regretted by the nation. They gave their lives on what is also America's front line.