Out of the ashes: Searching for hope in Benghazi

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Can an ambassador’s death be the seed of a better future?

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. So what happens when the martyr whose blood is shed happens to be a diplomat? The murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya was a tragedy on a number of levels—certainly for his family and the field of international diplomacy but most poignantly for the people of Benghazi. Stevens died with and for them, and tragically at the hands of some of them.

The death of Stevens, along with three other consular staff and security personnel, is now being investigated. How did U.S. and Libyan security fail so badly? Was the attack an act of irrational violence or a coordinated terror strike hiding behind Muslim rage? These are practical and strategic concerns.

But the incident in Benghazi is haunted by other issues. The gloom of the late Samuel Huntington and his “clash of civilizations” hangs over Benghazi like a moldering ghost of realpolitik past. The agit-prop video Innocence of Muslims has done its intended worst, and the Arab world has erupted in violence and rage. How can the West ever hope to find common ground with a culture that responds so violently to what the West regularly tolerates as unpleasant, even vile, but as a protected exercise of free speech?

The president’s decision to help drive Muammar Qadhafi from Libya, which neutralized regime forces and prevented a bloodbath in Benghazi, is being second-guessed, and the concept of an international “responsibility to protect” from genocide and widespread human rights violations undermined. How can we build a future together with a people that repays U.S. participation in the NATO air campaign which secured Libya’s freedom with the murder of one of our nation’s best and brightest?

The gulf between the Arab world and the West can seem insurmountable, but amid the mayhem and seething resentment there are signs of hope.

The average citizens of Benghazi were appalled at the destruction of the American consulate and the killing of the ambassador. It was they who stumbled upon his near lifeless body in the burning consulate, they who carried him to a private car, and they who rushed him to a hospital where other Libyans struggled for hours to revive him.

Just a few days after Stevens’ death, everyday Libyans took to the street and, at no small risk to themselves, drove the militia suspected of the attack out of Benghazi, disarming its members along with a number of other unofficial militias.

The death of Ambassador Stevens could be a turning point. How this incident and further inevitable stumbles are handled will decide whether it is a turn for the better or the worse. The way ahead seems obscured just now by broken pavement stones and burning barricades.

But the people of the West and those in the Arab world who are the life force of this struggling, sometimes incomprehensible Arab Spring are on a long path together. It will require courage to traverse it, and hope. We cannot see to the end of this journey now; perhaps this generation never will.

“If you are not with us, you are against us” is one kind of diplomacy. We have already tried that, and we know where it leads. This “us” and “them” mentality has divided humankind for millennia.

But there is no “us” and “them” in the church. There is only “us.” That is the Christian vision of humankind transformed forever by grace and mercy, and it is more than a pious platitude; it is a commitment of our faith.

How that vision is translated into a geopolitical reality is a challenge for each new generation. It is clearly the most pressing challenge of our age when the clash of civilizations increasingly threatens to expend itself in a final, demonic obliteration.

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Maybe the blood of a diplomatic martyr is the seed of a future where tolerance and brotherhood overcome outrage and violence and fear. 

This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 12, page 39).