Embassies and consulates work like American “houses” on foreign soil. The rule for Embassies under international law is “my house, my rules.” That’s why eighteen year olds can drink legally at some of the European embassies in America. That’s why, during the Cold War, people in foreign countries used to flock to their local “Amerikahaus.” In those Amerikahauses, under American law, they could access media banned by their own governments and speak freely without fear of persecution.
The American diplomatic station in Libya is a really nice house in a very dangerous neighborhood. We stay in this dangerous neighborhood because, if we left, things would only get worse for both us and the neighbors. But while we’re here, we’ve at least tried to do some good. We helped convinced the Libyans’ former landlord, a certain Mr. Gaddafi, to be less of a tyrant. In 2011 alone, our government approved aid totaling up to $25 million for the express purpose of helping Libyans when they needed it most. When our interests were threatened in Egypt, we didn’t turn off the lights and pretend we weren’t home– we sent over one billion dollars in aid to Egypt. Whether those decisions were right or wrong is now irrelevant. What matters is that those decisions were made. America has been a very good neighbor.
But then someone – maybe one of our guys, maybe one of our guests – made a movie that was really quite offensive to these neighbors. Disagreements do happen. Fortunately, our houses – our embassies and consulates – are staffed with diplomats who work specifically to address these types of concerns. But the Libyans and Egyptians who rioted didn’t want to meet with any diplomats, and they didn’t want to hear that, in America, we allow free speech to take place– even if it’s speech that offends us.
Some of these neighbors got together and decided to climb over our fences and make trouble at our houses in both Egypt and Libya. If someone tried to hop the fence onto your property here in America, you can – and you should – call the police. We should have been able to call in security teams to stop any and all trespassers – thereby enforcing American law – before a single trespasser’s pair of feet hit the ground on our side of the fence. In Libya, the mob was too large and too forceful. The rioters stormed the consulate, set it on fire, and killed four American diplomats. This is murder and arson and under American law we punish those heinous crimes, as we should.
Of the four Americans who died at the hands of Libyan rioters yesterday, at press time it has been confirmed that two of them were Foreign Service Officers. Ambassador Stevens joined in 1991, the same year I was born. We don’t hear about the Foreign Service often, but it’s not something abstract to me; I went to college specifically to study it. Many of my friends are headed to careers in the Foreign Service. So as I write this article, I’m huddled over my laptop, checking the news constantly, and thinking about very real human beings who dedicate their lives to abstract concepts like “public diplomacy” and “inter-religious understanding.”
Our diplomatic missions in Tunisia and Algeria are now beginning to see riots of their own. This doesn’t mean that we should be any less of a good neighbor. (In fact, if you’re looking for a little hope in all this, please look here at some Libyans who are doing their best to be good neighbors.) We need to send a clear message that our government will unapologetically protect Americans abroad. We owe it to our public servants – and especially to the memory of the four who lost their lives – to do this with integrity. We must tell our international neighbors that we have house rules. The rules allow us to keep everyone in the house free and safe. They allow us to welcome guests from all over the world. The rules are straightforward. They’ve served us well for over 200 years. We need a government that will support American diplomatic missions in enforcing these rules.
*The contents of this article are not in any way intended to reflect the views of the author’s alma mater or employer. All statements and opinions expressed here are those of the author as a private citizen, and NOT as an affiliate of any other institution.