The outraged reaction of Muslim protesters to the trailer of a film that defames the prophet Muhammad -- and that may not even exist in full -- is both discouraging and dismaying.
The demonstrations have taken place in some 20 countries, and, in Libya, they cost the life of the U.S. ambassador and three members of his staff. The Libyan government has promised to work with the U.S. authorities in tracking down the killers and reportedly has arrested as many as 50 people, some of them foreigners, in connection with the attack.
There was some reassuring news when an amateur video surfaced of Libyan civilians rescuing Ambassador Christopher Stevens from the consulate in Benghazi and rushing him to the hospital, cheering "God is great" when they mistakenly thought he had survived. It is a reminder not to judge a country's people by the worst among them.
In those Muslim nations where our embassies and diplomats seem to be under regular threat by impetuous, irrational mobs, it would be a natural reaction to pack up our aid and emissaries and go home. The reaction would be natural -- but mistaken.
For us to dissociate ourselves or even lower our level of engagement with the Muslim world is to invite even greater problems in the future. U.S. support was instrumental in freeing nations like Libya from brutal, entrenched dictatorships. Without our presence and encouragement, these inexperienced new governments, still feeling their way through the novelty of representative rule, would be left to the mercy of radical Islamist groups, who are very much in the minority but are well armed and ruthless.
We helped the Afghans expel the Soviet Union and then walked away from the vacuum we left behind, one that was filled after a vicious civil war by the Taliban, who then played host to al-Qaida. By walking away, we could leave similar vacuums in Libya, Syria, Yemen and even Egypt.
We need more skilled, language-proficient diplomats schooled in the local cultures, as Stevens was. We need to rebuild our overseas information services to the level of the Cold War. We need to make it easier for Muslim scholars, students and dignitaries to visit and study in the United States.
And we must relentlessly proselytize the First Amendment. It will be a tough, thankless task explaining the concept of free speech to people who have never enjoyed that right, but that is not an excuse for not trying.
Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.