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Editorial: Chris Stevens' legacy can be a free Libya

U.S. envoy Chris Stevens attends meetings at the

U.S. envoy Chris Stevens attends meetings at the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya. Credit: AP, 2011

That Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, might have died at the hands of a Benghazi mob would be the bitterest of ironies for an Arabic-speaking diplomat who aided Libyan rebels in overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi.

"How could this happen," asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?"

Now there are signs the attack that killed Stevens and three other Americans was no mere spontaneous thuggery. The Obama administration reportedly believes it was a coordinated, heavily armed assault, and media reports have suggested it might have been launched in connection with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, or in revenge for the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a top al-Qaida figure in Pakistan.

If this turns out to be the case, those who seek to undermine America's ties in the region chose an exemplary target in Stevens, who dedicated his life to understanding the Arab world and building stronger ties with its people. By combining deep knowledge, empathy and insight, he exemplified the best traditions of our nation's foreign service.

It is Stevens' life -- and not his death -- that points the best way forward. The most effective means of striking back against his assailants, aside from bringing them to justice, is to continue his vital work of building diplomatic bridges and promoting democracy in the Middle East. The attack in Benghazi, and a lesser riot outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo, can't be allowed to derail these efforts.

Tuesday's events also demonstrate the need for continued vigilance against those who, armed with a misguided notion of Islam, seek to drive a wedge between the United States and countries such as Libya. In response, the United States should redouble its diplomatic efforts, holding out the olive branch to any potential friends while ruthlessly suppressing al-Qaida and its allies. It's a good sign that Libyan leaders have been quick to condemn the killings, in one case calling them a "barbaric" attack on America and Libya alike. Similar outrage and condemnation have poured forth from Libyans on the Internet.

But that's not enough. It was all too easy for opportunists and enemies of peace to foment protests in Benghazi and Cairo over some absurd Internet snippets of a purported American film -- allegedly financed by 100 Jews -- that disparages Muhammed. The resulting whirlwind is depressingly familiar. We've already seen riots and killings in the Islamic world over some satirical Danish cartoons portraying the Islamic prophet; these culminated in an attempt to assassinate a cartoonist. Author Salman Rushdie spent years in hiding after one of his novels prompted Iranian theocrat Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a death sentence.

Religion is always a sensitive subject, but no one is entitled to resort to violence on this basis, and these appalling episodes can have no possible justification. The Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere have freed millions from the yoke of tyranny -- often with American help. It would be tragic if these millions were to succumb instead to the lure of religious extremism.