On Sept. 12, my step-cousin died. You know him as J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Chris was the eldest son of the wife of my mother’s uncle, which is to say that to my mother, her brothers, her parents, and everyone else in that generation, he was a close cousin. Chris was closer to my elders than to me or my generation, but we all knew about him. President Obama and Secretary Clinton appointed him special envoy to the rebels just after deciding to intervene aggressively there, and the family received, via our email chain, reports of his exciting times on board U.S. naval vessels and then in Benghazi. When he was named ambassador, we feared a long confirmation hearing, but the president’s political opponents realized the importance of getting this widely respected and non-political diplomat back to work in Libya.
I teach about the Mediterranean world and Islamic-Christian-Jewish relations regularly here at Dominican University, and I often daydreamed of a day when Chris would have a little more time and I’d be able to lure him to our campus. I thought of him as a model to which we might all aspire. He came across as both worldly and patriotic, optimistic for the future of the region he loved, yet pragmatic about the hard work that lay ahead to achieve that vision. As I write, violence spreads across the Islamic world, sparked by wild overreaction to a despicable YouTube video made by a soft-core pornography director and funded by a bigot. I pray that Chris’ death means something, and surely the many pictures of Libyans standing quietly, holding signs expressing their grief at his death, do mean something. But the fires are still burning.
It’s an odd thing to wake up on a normal Wednesday morning and call up the news, only to see a headline, “U.S. Envoy to Libya killed.” That can’t be right, I thought. My cousin is the envoy. Puzzlement was replaced by horror replaced by grief replaced by anger. I can’t tell you that Wednesday was a very productive day as I went through the motions, wading through my emotional reactions. I know, as do so many people at Dominican, what it is like to lose someone close to you, and that wasn’t what I was feeling. I knew of Chris as a relative, but I didn’t know the man. At the same time, I know what it’s like to read of tragic events happening to other people far away and to seek understanding and empathy. This was far more direct and personal.
A former mentor of mine finally helped me make sense of it. She’s a friend on Facebook and had been observing the comments rolling in all day. She wrote, “What has happened here is that there is a network of people connected to you who are reading today’s news as if it is personal. We all need to read the news every day like that, but of course we can’t because it would break our hearts. So this is one of the things Facebook does. It brings us to the sadness of the world, and to the obligation to hope, in a way that is more intense and personal than would otherwise be the case. So thanks for that.”
This is important and it’s why I’m writing and I hope it extends beyond my Facebook community to you, whoever you are, reading my letter. We can’t react to every piece of news as personal or we’d spend every day, as I did Wednesday morning, quietly weeping at the horrors of the world. But sometimes we need to feel the sadness of the world, then pivot from that sadness toward hope. That’s what Chris would want.
One of his friends shared an email written just a few months before he died. Chris wrote, “The whole atmosphere has changed for the better,” he wrote. “People smile more and are much more open with foreigners. Americans, French and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let’s hope it lasts!”
Let’s hope it comes back.
David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest and a Brookfield resident. He wrote this essay on Sept. 14, just two days after Chris Stevens was killed. The essay was first published in the Dominican Star on Sept. 18 and is reprinted here by permission.