How should U.S. respond to violence?

September 14, 2012


The violent attacks on the U.S. missions in Cairo, Egypt, and Benghazi, Libya — where a top U.S. diplomat was killed, are far too important to be reduced to fodder in a campaign debate.

We should be focused on a question that many Americans are probably asking about the tragic death of our ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans: How could this happen in a country that we helped liberate and a city we helped save?

The answer provides some clues as to how the United States should respond to such outrages now and, inevitably, in the future. And it illustrates a perplexing problem that will confront whoever wins the presidential race.

Stevens’ death is perplexing because of the lead role the United States played in the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and the fact that NATO intervention saved the rebel capital in Benghazi from being overrun by regime soldiers bent on slaughter. The question is especially poignant because Ambassador Stevens was an Arabic-speaker with long experience in Libya, who had served as U.S. emissary to the Libyan rebels.

Yet Stevens was killed, on the anniversary of 9/11, in a violent demonstration against an obscure, and bizarre, 13-minute film, in Arabic, that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad. How could a ludicrous video, showing Americans lumbering around in Arab gear — a video that looks as if it were made by drunken teenagers as a sick joke — cause such a tragic result?

For several reasons: Because radical salafi groups deliberately advertise such films to manipulate crowds who would never otherwise know these videos existed. Because poor Muslims in third-world countries are vulnerable to anti-Western diatribes and have no grasp of constitutional principles such as freedom of speech: They believe any film that insults Islam has government backing.

Because many Muslim leaders are too fearful — or too weak — to crack down on the hard-line salafis on their far-right flank.

And because, in the YouTube era, hard-line salafis can instantly reach thousands. Ditto for flame-throwers such as the maker of the Web film, who said he wanted to showcase hateful Islam, or Florida pastor Terry Jones of burn-the-Quran fame, who helped him. Both men were eager to stir up violence, cloaked in their free-speech rights. They share in the blame for what happened in Egypt and Libya.

But, frankly, even if the filmmaker hadn’t provided the oil for extremists to pour on the flames, these salafis could probably have found another offensive video — or cartoon.

Indeed, the 9/11 mayhem in Cairo and Benghazi was clearly planned beforehand. In Benghazi, the small group of violent protesters came prepared with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades; early signs indicate they hailed from a radical Islamist group called Ansar al-Sharia. In Cairo, according to the English website of the Ahram newspaper, a well-known salafist leader made calls on an ultraconservative satellite TV channel for the crowds to turn out.

So how should U.S. leaders respond?

First, by recognizing that the problems of the Arab Winter were not caused by one political party. Republican and Democratic leaders alike supported the popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and will have to deal with the complex results.

Second, by working with Arab leaders, like those in Libya, who do want to root out violent groups in their midst. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, Libya’s new leaders apologized for Tuesday’s violence. Moreover, Libyans rejected Islamist parties in their first election, but their new institutions are painfully weak.

Third, by making clear to leaders like Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, whose party has Muslim Brotherhood roots, that he can’t have good relations with the West unless he prevents future attacks — and stands up against salafi provocations. A Muslim Brotherhood spokesman called for a million-man rally on Friday to protest against the film, and demanded that the United States apologize to the world and prosecute the “madmen” who made it. The Brotherhood called for “peaceful” demonstrations, but radical provocateurs will be waiting in the wings.

The administration must tell Morsi he can’t have it both ways. He can’t receive $1 billion in U.S. debt forgiveness, U.S. help in getting international loans, and the Western investment that Egypt desperately needs, if he won’t head off violence against Western interests. Morsi will claim, that, as a “moderate” Muslim leader, he is squeezed by pressure on his right, but if he caves to that pressure he is no different from the salafis. And at some point, the salafis will turn against him.

Fourth, U.S. leaders must make plain to Muslim leaders that the U.S. Constitution protects free speech, however offensive. (Note: Free speech is under attack in Egypt; on Wednesday, an Egyptian court cleared a famous Egyptian actor, Adel Imam, of charges that he defamed Islam by playing a terrorist in a movie. Many similar cases accusing individuals of offending Islam are pending.)

President Obama must repeat over and over what he said Wednesday: “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this kind of senseless violence. None.”

With more trouble brewing over the Web film, Obama must demonstrate there is a price to be paid by those who perpetrate such violence, and by leaders who let it explode. On Wednesday, he said clearly that “justice will be done” toward those responsible for the death of Stevens and the others. U.S. officials should work with Libyans to make that pledge come true very soon.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 9 months ago

It is always going to be very difficult for a modern 21st century society with freedom of speech and religion to understand and to be understood by an 9th century society that has neither.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 9 months ago

What do you know of 9th century society in the Middle East, Ron? Nothing. Arabs are more modern than you would think but it is the terrorists who provoke these kinds of responses because they want to demean America. I will admit there is a whole cast of people who are ignorant both here in America and in the ME. But, we can educate both if we try by not agreeing with the terrorists. By not blaming all Muslims for the actions of the terrorists we can begin. I have seen over and over that the average American thinks that all Muslims, all 1.6 Billion Muslims are terrorists. There are 3,000 Muslims in Lawrence so tell me the violence you have seen here. I guess not all Muslims are terrorists.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 9 months ago

The silence of the 1.6 billion is deafening.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 9 months ago

I have met and known a few dozen Muslims here in the U.S. A. over the years, including a former Prime Minister of Afghanistan, and not a single one of them was a terrorist. But, from what I've read there are a lot of Muslims in the Middle East that are terrorists, and I am quite sure that is because of the failings of their educational systems.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 9 months ago

Gonna be a wild ride. Remember FDR and the sons of bitches. Our bought and paid for thugs are losing control.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 9 months ago

There are thousands of Muslims in the USA that are fighting against the onslaught of terrorists hijacking the religion of Islam. Muslims are sick and tired of being blamed for the actions of a few. Muslims in the world number about 1.6 billion and are sick of the 40-50,000 scattered all over the world who terrorize the west and the Middle East. The percentage of terrorists to Muslims is so small one would think the world could contain them, but they are smart, very worldly and look for every opportunity to strike. Stop blaming the Muslims and lets all go after the terrorists!

50YearResident 5 years, 9 months ago

The problem as I see it is these 1.6 billion peaceful Muslins are deathly afraid to speak out to the 40-50,000 terrorists. Until they do, the terrorists win. Threats of violence from these 50,000 keeps 1.6 billion very meek and quite Muslins from doing anything. If you truly are peace loving then police your own with authority.

Nellane Laney Croan Stussie 5 years, 9 months ago

Wounded Soldier ... as you probably well know, each of these facilities have well armed U.S. Marine Corps guards … who’s rules of engagement are directed by the President. If your “it’s a few bad muslins” theory is true, the policy should be "if they scale the 20 foot wall … the’re dead before they hit the ground."

Paul R Getto 5 years, 9 months ago

Good point. A well-known Topeka family comes to mind. We should not let the few speak for the many. The Islam-Christian dynamic is complex and both sides have been screwing it up for hundreds of years. No rhetoric from either side can solve that.

gbulldog 5 years, 9 months ago

That not what I heard on PBS tonight.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 9 months ago

We must engage with all who will talk to us. Diplomacy originated as a way to talk to enemies. Money in foreign aid is tiny amount. If we don't buy friends the Russians and Chinese will.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 9 months ago

No matter how much money Russia or China pours into the Middle East, it will still be populated by howling-mad nut jobs.

gbulldog 5 years, 9 months ago

And give them more time to develop the nuclear bomb. Chamberlin did that with Hitler. And it gave Hitler the time to better equip Germany. Do you know how close Germany was to developing jet airplanes and a nuclear weapon and rockets to deliver them. The USA was very fortnate that both Germany and Japan did not have enought time. And it does no good to talk, when you give away your right to intervein. Just think Cuba.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 9 months ago

Read up on Jefferson and the Barbary pirates. Foreign policy has always been messy and unplanned. Jefferson was the first to try organize a coalition and the first to declare war on his own.

riverdrifter 5 years, 9 months ago

By God, that would just solve everything. Why doesn't our president think off that? Damn. Thanks, Snap.

Mixolydian 5 years, 9 months ago

Good point. Our economy is going from stagnation to the tank and our credit rating just got down graded...again. The administration is a disaster on the economy. On foreign affairs Obama's sole claim to any competence was the Seals taking out OBL. However now he announces possible criminal prosecution against the very same Navy Seal who risked his life to take out OBL. November can't come soon enough.

Judgesmails 5 years, 9 months ago

Hopefully, now we'll pull out of these crapholes.

Let these countries fend for themselves

The US is wasting money, time and lives

fiddleback 5 years, 9 months ago

"How should U.S. respond to violence?"

First idea: drop plush toys on them, except instead of animals these will be Lil' Muhammads™ that they can hug really tight until they're not so mad!

Second, also an aerial drop idea: have our American school children make custom greeting cards with collaged construction paper, yarn, and glue: a sad prophet on the outside, but then....a happy smiley prophet on the inside as Uncle Sam hands him a flower! See how they turned that frown upside down, you guys?

Third: napalm.

Armstrong 5 years, 9 months ago

Let the governing bodies know they are now responsible for the actions of their population and will be held accountable. Don't want to get carpet bombed ? Keep your terrorists under your thumb before our thumbs start pushing buttons

Paul R Getto 5 years, 9 months ago

Glad you are not on the presidential ticket.

Shane Garrett 5 years, 9 months ago

Love thy neighbor? Turn the other check? Turn the sand into glass? The whole religion of peace is showing itself as a fraud. As I once said to an Egyptian who asked about why the violence, I responded a country either has freedom of speech or it does not. It is just the same as one cannot be a little bit pregnant.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.