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Professor analyzes Libyan shooting

Kristen Durbin | Friday, September 14, 2012

In the wake of the Tuesday assassination of Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, and three of his staff members during a terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in the city of Benghazi, Americans may be wondering what this act of violence means for their presence in countries embroiled in Arab Spring.

Though tragic and unexpected, the Islamist militant-driven attack “wasn’t altogether surprising,” according to political science professor Sebastian Rosato.

“It was a tragic event, especially given the circumstances. This is a guy who had worked hard to help Libyans overthrow [Col. Moammar] Gadhafi and clearly cared about the Libyan people,” Rosato said. “It was surprising that it was the ambassador … but it was completely unsurprising that an American representative was targeted and, in this case, killed by someone.”

According to reports, fighters involved in the Benghazi attack said it was provoked by the release of an American-made film that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as a “villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon.”

The Benghazi attack also occurred just hours after an unarmed mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in protest of the same video.

Such actions on the part of Americans do not go without provoking potentially serious consequences, Rosato said.

“In this situation, people have started riots in reaction to a filmmaker who has made a crazy film. They’re upset and protesting and targeting Americans, but why is anybody surprised?” he said. “The United States is not a country that people like in the Middle East.”

The strong American presence abroad, especially in the Middle East, combined with the extreme actions of a few individuals can create tense situations, Rosato said.

“If you have a presence in other countries and Americans do crazy stuff like come out with movies like this, people are going to retaliate,” he said. “You don’t expect that they’re going to target and kill the ambassador, but things are going to happen.”

Rosato said the extreme response to the American-made film in Benghazi is somewhat analogous to American treatment of Muslims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, using last month’s shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple as an example.

“My understanding is that [the shooting] was done by someone who mistook Sikhs for Muslims,” he said. “The parallels are quite interesting: An extreme act by a small proportion of Muslims has led to people being killed on American soil, but the same thing happened when an extreme act by an American filmmaker has led to Americans being killed abroad.”

While Americans may be quick to generalize about Libyans and their attitude toward the United States in the wake of Stevens’ death, Rosato said the attack has more to do with the mentality of a very small group of people than the collective national perception of Americans.
“Just as Americans would get upset if someone in another country did something that violated their beliefs, people got upset in Libya,” he said. “But just because some people in Libya killed an American doesn’t mean all Libyans want to kill Americans. Was this a small fringe group that took advantage of a mass disturbance? My guess is yes.”

Despite the tragedy of losing the first U.S. ambassador in the line of duty since 1979, Rosato said deaths of Americans abroad are not unusual.

“There’s a huge human tragedy here … but there always have been and always will be attacks on American nationals abroad,” he said. “The reason we’re paying attention to this one is because [Stevens] was so high-profile, but in terms of international politics, this is not a big event.”

In reality, most Americans killed in other countries do not receive the heightened media attention given to prominent figures like Stevens, Rosato said.

“I think the result tends to blow the event out of proportion. Americans get killed all the time in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we call that war,” he said. “This somehow seems worse because it happened to a civilian diplomat, but it goes on all the time.”