Two months into Libya's revolution in April 2011, I visited Benghazi and the other liberated cities in the country's east. It was Libya's hour of greatest idealism and highest hope. The rebels were promising to build a society grounded in human rights and respect for law. In town after town, walls were painted with slogans of revolutionary moderation: "We reject extremism" and "We want a country of institutions." Everyone who wasn't rushing to fight on the front lines seemed to be starting a newspaper or radio station or volunteer group, eager to connect to the world from which Muammar al-Qaddafi had isolated them and grateful to the mostly Western countries that helped them in their moment of need.
I met Ambassador Chris Stevens then, in his makeshift diplomatic mission in a Benghazi hotel. He had recently arrived as America's envoy to the rebel authorities in the east and was pressing them, as I was, to treat prisoners well and to start building judicial institutions. We shared a laugh about what seemed America's biggest image problem in Benghazi at the time: French and Italian flags outnumbered American ones in the central square during Friday prayers. The explanation: Libyans had to make the flags by hand, and simple European tricolors were easier to reproduce than all those stars and stripes.
But Stevens knew Libya too well to assume that the rebels were all Jeffersonian democrats or that the militias fighting Qaddafi would easily give up their guns and power when the dictator was gone. He believed, however, that something special still had a chance to emerge from Libya's revolutionary chaos: that having suffered 40 years of Qaddafi's Green Book ideology, Libyans would be wary of extremists and ideologues of all stripes; that having awakened, Libya's civil society would not let anyone, neither a dictator nor armed gangs, intimidate it again; that having received the right measure of international help -- enough to win their friendship, but not so much as to deny them ownership of their revolution -- Libyans would develop a healthy relationship with the West, neither overly dependent nor reflexively hostile.
At first, Stevens's murder in Benghazi seemed to call these hopes into question. Many Americans naturally wondered whether support for the Arab Spring yielded any benefits for the United States, or just more rage. It seemed inevitable that the State Department would restrict its diplomats behind even more walls and steel -- though Stevens died not while engaging with Libyans in the cultural center he had come to Benghazi to open, but behind the walls of a diplomatic compound and the steel of a "safe" room.
Terrorists can strike anywhere. But it is how governments and societies react that determines whether terrorism succeeds or fails. And Libyans' reaction to the tragedy vindicated what Stevens believed the country is and could become. Could anyone, whether a cynic or optimist about the region, have dreamed of a better response to an attack on a diplomatic mission on Arab soil than what happened after the violence in Benghazi -- tens of thousands of people marching on the headquarters of the law-defying militias suspected of complicity in the assault (and of multiple other killings over the past several months) to run them out of town, while holding signs paying tribute to the fallen ambassador?
It was not just Libya's political elite who were angry and ashamed about what happened. The morning I learned of Stevens's death, I emailed an influential Islamist leader in eastern Libya, fearing that he would be more agitated by the anti-Mohammed video than the killings we thought (wrongly it seems) it had precipitated: "You can't imagine how sad we are," he immediately replied. "Clearly, [Stevens] was a citizen of a country that has helped us to be liberated from one of the most bloody regimes; and before all that, he was our guest who we were supposed to protect. We will do all we can to make clear that a killing is a killing no matter what the motives were."
Libya's highest religious leader, the grand mufti, issued a fatwa against the killers, linking them to militants who have been attacking Libya's Sufi shrines in recent weeks. Libya's offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood was the first political party to denounce the attacks. Even a political party led by former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group -- men who have plenty of reasons to be angry at the United States, especially because the CIA tortured them and rendered them to Qaddafi's prisons during George W. Bush's administration -- joined the condemnation and said the party accepted completely the U.S. government's assurance that it had nothing to do with the infamous Internet film.