Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Who was Chris Stevens?

It’s a rare thing for a U.S. Ambassador to be killed in the line of duty. There have only been six such men in our history. The last one, prior to yesterday’s tragic murder in Libya of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, was Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs in 1979.

So it seemed worthwhile to take a moment to ask who was this Chris Stevens who gave his life for his country.

The outline of Ambassador Stevens’s life is readily available on Wikipedia: born in 1960, graduated UC Berkeley, volunteered for the Peace Corps, served in a string of diplomatic assignments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Official encomiums from President Obama (“Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States.”) and Secretary of State Clinton (“Chris was committed to advancing America's values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger.”) have been all over the news today, but the man himself – what he was like, what he liked – is more elusive. Nevertheless, I’ve been able to find a few personal snippets:

  • Music was part of his life. He was the son of Mary Commanday, a retired cellist, and stepson of Robert Commanday, founder of the San Francisco Classical Voice (SFCV) website. Upon his confirmation as ambassador, his stepfather revealed to the SFCV news, “He played saxophone, about at the Bill Clinton level, but marginally in public. And he performed in one or two musicals at Piedmont High School.” According to his friend Harvey Morris, writing in the New York Times, Ambassador Stevens wrote him this summer that “Somehow our clever [embassy] staff located a Libyan band that specializes in 1980s soft rock, so I felt very much at home.”
  • The ambassador also wrote Mr. Morris that he “had got into the habit of a daily run through ‘our somewhat rural neighborhood of goat farms and olive groves and vineyards.’”
  • NPR’s Greg Myre wrote that Ambassador Stevens “thrived on tough assignments:”

    U.S. diplomats today often seem to be captives of their embassies. Many live and work behind high walls in fortified compounds, guarded by U.S. Marines who are often reinforced by a local security force. They venture out less and less, and the death of Stevens and three other Americans will only amplify this trend.

    But Stevens, a 21-year veteran of the Foreign Service, never fully accepted these restrictions.

    I witnessed this nearly a decade ago when Stevens was a political officer in Jerusalem. I was a reporter there at the time, and diplomats did not often venture into the West Bank as the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians raged. But Stevens was always eager to go and take the temperature for himself.

    Over time, security concerns made such excursions rarer and rarer. Stevens was frustrated by the limitations.

    Perhaps in the end it’s best to let Ambassador Stevens speak for himself. Here’s a video he made earlier this year to introduce himself to the people of Libya.

    Many Americans believe that freedom in the Arab world is an impossible dream and saw yesterday's events as confirmation. It is clear from the video that Ambassador Stevens disagreed. The portrait that emerges is of a man who loved the history and institutions that made America a free country and looked forward to working with the Libyan people to build their own enclave of freedom on the shores of North Africa. He compares the Libyan revolution to our own Civil War, so it's appropriate to close with the words of Abraham Lincoln—they apply to all four of those who died in yesterday’s attacks: “It is for us the living…to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

    Rest in peace, Chris Stevens.

    Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on

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