Essay – Libya Violence Hits Home

On Wednesday morning, my step-cousin died. You know him as J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya.

Chris was the eldest son of the wife of my mother’s uncle, which is
to say that to my mother, her brothers, her parents, and everyone else
in that generation, he was a close cousin.  Chris was closer to my
elders than to me or my generation, but we all knew about him.
 President Obama and Secretary Clinton appointed him special envoy to
the rebels just after deciding to intervene aggressively there, and the
family received, via our email chain, reports of his exciting times on
board U.S. naval vessels and then in Benghazi. When he was named
Ambassador, we feared a long confirmation hearing, but the President’s
political opponents realized the importance of getting this widely
respected and non-political diplomat back to work in Libya.

I teach about the Mediterranean world and Islamic-Christian-Jewish
relations regularly here at Dominican, and I often daydreamed of a day
when Chris would have a little more time and I’d be able to lure him to
our campus. I thought of him as a model to which we might all aspire. He
came across as both worldly and patriotic, optimistic for the future of
the region he loved, yet pragmatic about the hard work that lay ahead
to achieve that vision. As I write, violence spreads across the Islamic
world, sparked by wild overreaction to a despicable YouTube video made
by a soft-core pornography director and funded by a bigot. I pray that
Chris’ death means something, and surely the many pictures of Libyans
standing quietly, holding signs expressing their grief at his death, do
mean something. But the fires are still burning.

It’s an odd thing to wake up on a normal Wednesday morning and call
up the news, only to see a headline, “U.S. Envoy to Libya killed.” That
can’t be right, I thought. My cousin is the envoy. Puzzlement was
replaced by horror replaced by grief replaced by anger.  I can’t tell
you that Wednesday was a very productive day as I went through the
motions, wading my way through my emotional reactions. I know, as do so
many people at Dominican, what it is like to lose someone close to you,
and that wasn’t what I was feeling. I knew of Chris as a relative, but I
didn’t know the man. At the same time, I know what it’s like to read of
tragic events happening to other people, far away, and to seek
understanding and empathy. This was far more direct and personal.

A former mentor of mine finally helped me make sense of it. She’s a
friend of mine on Facebook and had been observing the comments rolling
in all day. She wrote, “What has happened here is that there is a
network of people connected to you who are reading today’s news as if it
is personal. We all need to read the news every day like that, but of
course we can’t because it would break our hearts.  So this is one of
the things Facebook does. It brings us to the sadness of the world, and
to the obligation to hope, in a way that is more intense and personal
than would otherwise be the case. So thanks for that.”

This is important and it’s why I’m writing and I hope it extends
beyond my Facebook community to you, whoever you are, reading my letter.
We can’t react to every piece of news as personal or we’d spend every
day, as I did Wednesday morning, quietly weeping at the horrors of the
world. But sometimes we need to feel the sadness of the world, then
pivot from that sadness towards hope. That’s what Chris would want.
One of his friends shared an email written just a few months before
he died. Chris wrote, “The whole atmosphere has changed for the better,”
he wrote. “People smile more and are much more open with foreigners.
Americans, French and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let’s
hope it lasts!”

Let’s hope it comes back.

Originally published: Libya violence hits home (Dominican Star, print edition 9/18/2012)