WASHINGTON -- The main topic of conversation around Washington these last two weeks has not been about either of the presidential candidates, but about an American ambassador, a charming diplomat whose destiny should have been so very different from the one that finally met him. It's a tragic tale. Maybe you should drop off now.
But the story of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi on Sept. 11 is more than a tale told by madmen. It rings with the singular mourning that has swept unusual portions of the world following this fine young man's death. It is also a tale filled with many lessons, which we SAY, oh yes, we are certainly going to learn this time.
First and foremost, it was strange that the new ambassador should have left the well-guarded U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and traveled on this bedeviled date with only minimal security to that barren desert country's second city of Benghazi.
Second, it seemed strange that people were ranging around the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi at 9:30 in the evening, in a city where they had to know full well that there were wildcat militias, many of them radically anti-American. As recently as June 11, a rocket-propelled grenade had hit a convoy in Benghazi carrying London's ambassador to Libya, after which Britain closed its consulate there.
Third, in the days before the attack on Ambassador Stevens -- before the 11th anniversary of 9/11 -- intelligence agencies had issued another annual warning to beware of heightened security risks. Small changes were made in the Libyan protection of the embassy itself, but almost no changes in the protection to the consulate in Benghazi.
So, as the dramatists of old would intone, "the stage was set."
We know now the tragic playing out of events. The ambassador, the other diplomats and several guards stationed there were in the consulate when first shouts and then gunshots rent the air. This was followed by the mob setting the building on fire, with choking black smoke encompassing everything.
At this writing, it is still unclear whether those first attacks came from angry mobs, perhaps upset by the 9/11 anniversary or perhaps by the recent vulgar film on Muhammad, or by radical militias of the al-Qaida style. That may never be known. But it is known that the ambassador fled to a supposedly safer room, where, unable to get out, he died of smoke inhalation.
Now, why would a man like this, considered a knowledgeable, practicing diplomat, apparently beloved of just about everyone, take such a chance on such a day filled with premonition? Many reasons are being put forward, but my experience of 48 years working in the foreign field would indicate to me that Stevens felt, obviously far too comfortably, that he was among friends and therefore invulnerable.
He had, for instance, been sent by the State Department during the Libyan civil war of the last two years as the American "connection" to the rebels in Benghazi. By all accounts, they got along swimmingly. The non-radical rebels loved him, and he felt he had finally found his place in the world. (An idealist, Stevens had started out as a member of the Peace Corps in Morocco and loved the Middle East.)
When the civil war was over and he was sent back to Libya as ambassador -- what a wonderful triumph! -- he would likely assume that he was among friends. His people had won. Especially in Benghazi.
I have seen this happen often in the foreign field, with diplomats who get too close to their foreign "people" and forget that enemies remain; the same happens with journalists. I may have indulged in it a bit myself, but at least I'm still alive.
The lack of basic weaponry and protection is more difficult to figure. There was, by all reports, no firefighting equipment in the consulate. Had there been even smoke-prevention masks and fire extinguishers, especially in the halfway-protected room Stevens died in, he may well have lived.
And did his military companions carry guns? Did they have any escape plans, just for day-to-day problems, from the consulate? It seems not. It is also reported that the Libyan guards who finally arrived on the site took the survivors to a secret American "safe house." Either the attackers knew about it or just followed the Libyan caravan there -- no longer a safe house, either.
All of this is strange, if only because, in the last 20 years or so, our embassies all over the world have become fortified camps. Several years ago, I was in Kampala, Uganda, in Central Africa, and my taxi pulled up near the American Embassy, where I had an appointment. The driver stopped a good 300 yards away and would not move.
"It scares me," he said, staring at the frightening fortifications.
"It scares me, too," I agreed.