Right after the death of Ambassador Stevens was confirmed, media tributes lauding his service emerged. Even before Chris Stevens became an ambassador, he was known for his willingness to engage with Libyans in the most remote areas of this North African country in order to help bring them into the larger conversation he envisioned about citizenship, political structures and social futures of their country. After he was promoted, he continued with his distinctive brand of outreach.
The Chinook Observer made one of the first reports about Stevens’ death, doing so with sadness and dignity. Chris Stevens was a member of the Chinook Nation, whose ancestral home is in the Pacific Northwest. Part of the Chinook history and heritage involves a long tradition of survival against harsh physical conditions, and then later, colonial domination by white settlers. The famed Lewis & Clark expedition team led the first colonial contact with the Chinook, who were historically a federation of tribal groups. As a resourceful, accomplished people, the Chinook at first welcomed the Lewis & Clark team. But historical accounts indicate that eventually the Chinook waged guerrilla attacks against the team when the colonial explorers exhausted their welcome, prompting the team members to leave for fear of their lives. Imagine, then, from the settlers’ point of view, that while they experienced a sense of normalcy during their daytime encounters with the Chinook, at night, they suffered the unsettling discomfort of hidden, unpredictable attacks.
What does our standard historical record say about how the Chinook felt? Precious little. Here, however, is where I truly believe that Ambassador Stevens’ racial identity was essential to his character and his professional expertise. Stevens probably brought to his job a deep understanding of what it meant to be part of an indigenous people trying to assert an identity, trying to preserve tradition while adjusting to new pressures. This would not have been an idle proposition to him. Currently, in his own United States, the Chinook Nation of his heritage continues to struggle for federal recognition as an “official” sovereign nation –a legislative effort that was supported by the Clinton administration but was subsequently blocked under the Bush presidency. It remains in congressional limbo under the Obama administration.
Stevens no doubt recognized Libya as a nation caught in-between an accomplished past and an uncertain future, despite the tumultuous social unrest since Muammar Gaddafi‘s violent overthrow.
In those long hours and days immediately after the assault in Benghazi, while the rest of us waited for details about the people who were killed, the Chinook Nation learned about the loss of one of their most distinguished and beloved family members. Stevens was not only an accomplished State Department employee, he was a Chinook role model and favorite son. Quietly, and with dignity and compassion, President Obama reached out to Ambassador Stevens’ mother, as well as leaders of the Chinook Nation, to express private condolences away from the spotlight of the national media. This happened under the radar of majority media, but the Chinook Observer reported this, once again not only showing the importance of ethnic media, but of the special role of American Indian media as my latest book documents.
Christopher Stevens’ life as a diplomat, and the work of countless others like him, remains nearly invisible to those of us outside the profession. In 2010, I got a glimpse of this life when I stayed with a friend whose husband was part of the diplomatic staff in a West African country. Their family lived in an attractive house with many amenities. Some of the perks, however, were silent reminders of unspoken dangers, like the 24-hour local security guards who routinely changed shifts in the garage of their gated residence.
I witnessed a bit of the special dance involved in the life of our foreign diplomats. They choose to live in a foreign community, to forge relationships broadly and build alliances, while mindful of the steps they need to take to negotiate their own personal safety.
I have also had the opportunity to serve in much shorter assignments as part of small faculty teams to help train women journalists in Bangladesh and Nepal. During our waking hours, we spent as much time as possible connecting with the people we were sent to serve. At night, we returned to secure—even fortified—places to sleep, chosen because of their locations and track record with keeping Western visitors safe.
Everything in his background, training and experience made Ambassador Stevens a singular statesman, but his work on the margins of social dysfunction had risks. In 2010, those became painfully on display…although we did not know it then.
It was during this time that the “biggest leak of classified materials” to WikiLeaks, became public, a crime for which Oklahoma native and Army private Bradley Manning currently faces charges. At the time of the release of these sensitive military and diplomatic documents, our government’s outrage was swift and sharp. One of the accusations made then and now as Manning prepares for trial, is the charge that his actions gave “aid to the enemy”. It’s a broad and vague offense until you read this specific telegram message, meant to be confidential, from Libya. It gives detailed descriptions of Libyan communities, people and social conditions which the writer observes as he moves from village to village. Read the name, and then shiver. The author was Chris Stevens, then working as a field officer for the State Department.
Investigations point to Stevens’ death as the result of a planned, terrorist attack. Why were Libyan insiders so quick to identify this as a planned attack from the start? Maybe it was because everyone knew, probably even Stevens, that this leaked document might have been one of his diplomatic tasks that put a target on his back. Maybe Stevens hoped that he had accumulated enough good will to overcome the resentments of those he would never win over. Maybe the State Department hoped to replace him with someone less known but who had the skills, empathy and heart to take over such a difficult assignment.
And if President Obama seemed slow to confirm our worst fears about this tragedy, it might not have been because he was “at odds” with the State Department, but because the story was more complicated and sensitive than we could have imagined. In a poignant interview about her son, Ambassador Stevens’ mother noted that the political exploitation of his death certainly complicated her grief.
Now, as I remember my cousin Frank, the whole narrative about his death becomes less sure. Family lore has it that he was a victim of circumstance—in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what if he was a target? He could have unknowingly slighted one gang over another, or offended one leader without intention. And during the chaos of a spontaneous street fight, someone Frank offended could have taken that opportunity to eliminate a perceived enemy. I will never know.
Stevens’ observations about Libya show that he saw a country and a people with much potential, but with troubling problems. He described, among other things, a lack of economic stability, a growing social disruption, and restive youth populations. In 1996, the U.S. established the National Gang Center to study the causes of our youth gang problems and has since then generated many reports and statistics. Would it be surprising to you to see that some of its concerns mirror what Stevens observed in Libya? Much like those who try to intervene in the gang wars of my home city, foreign diplomats depend upon their understanding turf rules while trying gingerly not to violate them.
Gangs are designed to terrorize, and whether they are in North Philly or Benghazi, and they cannot be ignored or dismissed. Civilian soldiers, like Ambassador Stevens, choose to walk purposely onto “turfs” where they do not belong. They do so consciously, hoping to provide a bridge that could turn a neighborhood, community and even a nation away from the turmoil of despair, and into the fragile peace of stability and hope.
We cannot afford to reduce the remarkable and heroic life Stevens led into provocative headlines and spoken innuendos. We cannot make the tragic circumstances of his death erase the remarkable accomplishments of his life.
Ambassador Stevens’ story is not about politics. It is about what courage truly looks like.