September 16, 2012 — The armed attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11 and the killing of the US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff is a horrible tragedy whose response requires extreme care if we are to avoid enabling violent extremists to catalyze broader conflict.
Amid the backdrop of sudden protests in Cairo, Sana'a and other Middle Eastern cities over an amateur movie trailer that vulgarizes Islam, policymakers will need facts more than emotion to fashion an intelligent response.
Officials in the region, the US and around the world would do well to reflect on enduring points that grow out of our evolving understanding of terrorism, political violence, and global stability.
The Libyan assault appears to be a premeditated act of terrorism, meaning a violent attack against civilians for broader political ends. One member of the gathering mob is reported to have told a local citizen near the consulate, "The Americans are infidels and we are going to finish them."
Apparently this was not just a protest gone wrong but rather more likely an assault by a radical Salafist militia. Given its outrageous nature, we would do well to recall the basic aim of terrorism, which is to affect an audience, using shock and outrage to influence its actions. We also need to realize that terrorists are using anti-US outrage to mitigate their own marginalization.
Before officials launch indiscriminate reprisals, they need to define the perpetrators with precision. It would be an enormous mistake to see in this incident the will of the entire Libyan people. It would be just as foolish to automatically conflate the actions of these few violent individuals with Al Qaeda.
All extremists and thugs are not "Al Qaeda," and we muddy the picture and undermine our own interests by falling back into simplistic dichotomous language. While it is prudent to dispatch military forces to the area, action should follow solid evidence. Until we know exactly who did what, this kind of unsophisticated reaction merely perpetuates the Al Qaeda brand, empowers terrorists and undermines our interests.
We should keep the strategic picture in mind. We should not merely seek punishment of those involved, but justice in the form of a positive agenda of good governance in Libya. That is what Stevens stood for, first as an envoy to the rebels and then the new government, and that is what he ultimately died for. Stevens was fast building bridges with ordinary Libyans. Building good governance in Libya will take time and trust-building, and both must continue despite violent setbacks.
While doing whatever is possible to tamp down these catalysts for violence, US policymakers should recognize there are limits to what governments can do. Private citizens in the information age have disproportionate power to incite extreme hate and violence. It is the dark side of globalization.
Governments must recognize that they will inevitably find themselves responding to these wild cards. Their best defense is to avoid being manipulated by them.
We need to bolster incentives for fragile governments and fledgling political leaders in these countries to continue down a moderate path rather than cave into extremism as a way of consolidating power.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's initial failure to condemn the storming of the US embassy in Cairo by enraged protesters appears to have been spurred by a desire not to alienate domestic Islamists. To be sure, this protest is the first major test of his leadership. But there is no justification for this kind of violence, just as there is no justification for terrorism of any kind.
In short, if we are to avoid unintended consequences and unnecessary escalation, we must be resolute, prudent, and intelligent in how we respond. Terrorists should be brought to justice, and governments, unlike terrorists, must protect innocents and pursue a positive future. To do otherwise is to allow terrorists to achieve their basic aims.
Patrick M. Cronin is senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security based in Washington, and Audrey Kurth Cronin is professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy in Virginia.