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.