Getting the Facts Before We Lash Out at Libya

On Anger and Foreign Policy


We are all appalled at the brutal attack on a US embassy in Benghazi last week. Senseless killing cannot be condoned by civilized people regardless of the circumstances, be it an IED attack by an extremist terrorist group or a drone attack by a world power. Those who value human life must always censure violence.

Yet violence will almost certainly happen. Though the majority of us, Christian or Muslim, American or Libyan, abhor bloodshed, there are those who do not share our values and are not moved by our pleas. For whatever reason, desperation, greed, power-hunger, a senses of rage however righteous, some people turn to the easiest, most cowardly means of expressing their anger—violence.

When this happens, it is incumbent upon those of us dedicated to peace and to reason to resist the compulsion to lash out with our anger. Yes, it is natural to be angry in the face of injustice and death. However, what we do with that anger is a matter of choice. The manifestation of our choices reveals the content of our character and our dedication to virtue.

There are many among us now who would justify bringing the weight of American power against Libya for the crime perpetrated in Benghazi. After all, this was a city that was saved from certain genocide by NATO forces. Indeed, we should remember this in the face of those who would perpetrate their own genocide in response to the death of Christopher Stevens and others working in the US embassy. After all, this is not a simple instance of “us against them” of “we rescued them from despotism and they repay us by killing our people.” The “we’s” and the “they’s” are not so clear cut. Like all matters of sociology and history, the truth is a complex matrix of interlocking and interacting phenomena that muddy and roil the clarity of our angst.

I responded to a friend of mine who had stated, “if it was up to me that place [Libya] would be dust by now,” by linking photographs of Libyans apologizing for the crimes committed in their name (click the link in the picture above). My friend defended his position
by suggesting that those in the pictures represented the minority opinion in Libya. He knew, just knew that the Libyan people as a whole hate us. After all, there are “thousands” in the street protesting the United States. To be honest, I didn’t know if he was right or not. So I looked for data to confirm or to refute his claim. It didn’t take long to find. I was shocked to learn that Gallup conducted a poll in Libya just last month that revealed, “Record high support for US leadership.” According to the website, “U.S. support for the Libyan revolution may have generated an almost unprecedented level of goodwill toward the U.S. In 2012, 54% of Libyans approve of U.S. leadership — among the highest approval Gallup has ever recorded in the Middle East and North Africa region, outside of Israel.”

That being said, there is a long and complex history between the United States and other western cultures, and Libya and Islamic cultures. There are those who oppose American leadership who, for defensible reasons, fear that US support for the revolution is nothing more than a cynical attempt to secure its own hegemony. Some in Libya benefited from the Gadhafi dictatorship and are sorry to see their erstwhile tyrant gone. Others are in pursuit of their own cynical ends.

We cannot discount the myriad interests of perhaps hundreds of groups within Libya that are now suddenly thrust into a competitive power vacuum. As much as we would like to understand Libya in terms of a stable political and cultural entity, such is not an accurate description of this country. Libya, as a society, has been shattered and destabilized by revolution. Revolutions, even against brutal dictators, more often than not, lead to social destabilization and all of the privations that go with it. In such an environment, social groups vie for power and status, incorporating the disempowered and consolidating position within the cultural power structure. There are those who would use animosity, distrust and discontent with regard to the United States and to the west to cultivate their power. For such groups, violence is nothing more than a means to an end. It demonstrates that they have the guile to strike against the most powerful force in the world, so follow them and they will lead you to greatness.

And in Libya, these groups are armed. In the face of the attack on the US embassy, Gallup had completed another poll showing that Libyan’s overwhelmingly see the militias and armed factions within the country as dangerous. An incredible ninety-five percent of Libyans want the militias disarmed (surely the NRA would disapprove). The citizens of Libya recognize the precarious nature of their position. Armed and lawless militias can only serve to make an unstable situation more chaotic (again, surely the NRA would disapprove).

Libya is a shattered society as a result of its revolution. Indeed, the fall of Gadhafi is a crucial first step to establishing a more just and free society in Libya and the rest of the world, but it’s not the only step. Unfortunately, the purveyors of violence and anger and hatred will have their day in Libya as they always have in every uncertain age before law and order can be established by the people. As aptly expressed by Benjamin Barber of The Guardian, “In truth, this tragic murder of a diplomat who was a friend of the Libyan revolution was not a[sic] just a confounding aberration in a “city we helped save from destruction” (in Clinton’s words). Rather it is evidence of ongoing chaos that has afflicted Libya since the welcome overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime. And a symptom of just how long and perilous the path is from a revolution that decapitates a dictator to a stable democracy in which the rule of law is systematically enforced.”

Hopefully, the death of Ambassador Stevens is the last such tragedy in this shaken region. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t. However, it is not up to us, in our anger and our grief, to compound this tragedy with violent retribution. If the United States supports the revolution for the sake of freedom, justice and democracy (admittedly, a difficult speculation to justify considering our past), then we must be so dedicated that we cannot be swayed by our own anger, however righteous that anger may be. Ultimately, the establishment of a just and free society in Libya will be realized by the Libyan people—perhaps the same Libyan people who have taken to the streets in a show of remorse. It’s likely that the Libyan version of freedom and democracy will not look like our own. We may not understand it, approve of it or even like it. If, however, we are truly committed to democracy, we must have a longer perspective. Indeed, we may have to be prepared to grieve before we can celebrate.

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