Editor's note: Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. During a 29-year career in diplomacy, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and to Israel. The views expressed are his own.
By Daniel Kurtzer, Special to CNN
Some years ago, while on a trans-Atlantic flight, I was reading a thriller novel when I came across a stunning passage: the American ambassador in Cairo was assassinated by the villains in the novel. What was so disconcerting personally was that I was the American ambassador at that time!
The novel got me thinking about the day after such an assassination: that is, the reactions of family, friends, colleagues and American government. Surely, there would be favorable obituaries and fond remembrances. There would be outrage over the murder and calls for bringing the perpetrators to justice. Over time, the personal sense of loss among family members would linger, while the professional friends would naturally move on.
These ruminations of long ago came back to me upon hearing the news of the assassination of Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues in Benghazi at the hands of heavily armed militants. This was an act of terrorism — horrific, inexcusable, intolerable assaults against a prominent diplomat — and a message to all Americans. Chris was a first-rate diplomat, who many of us of a certain age knew would be the “next generation” of our diplomatic leaders. His death stings us all.
Today is the day after his assassination. Besides the outpouring of emotions from family and friends, we also hear from our leaders and from editorialists about the need for resolve and steadfastness against terrorism. This is, of course, right, as are the calls for bringing the perpetrators to justice. Our diplomats and our embassies cannot become targets of choice for fanatics of any stripe.
But, on this day after, we are also hearing the voices of apologists, accusers and political gamesters, those who are intent on exploiting these acts of terrorism to advance narrow agendas. The apologists trot out familiar, offensive arguments that seek to blame us: they say that Muslims have a right to feel offended because of American attitudes or American policy, or because of a racist pastor in Florida who burns Qurans, or because of a hate-spewing filmmaker. This is a classic case of blaming the victim, and it reveals a measure of self-hate that is unflattering to those who make these arguments.
The accusers blame all Muslims for terrorism. They quote selectively from the Quran to “prove” that all Muslims are liars, murderers or deceivers. They seek to create a wedge between a self-proclaimed Christian United States or Europe and the Muslim hordes who are seen as waiting at the gates of Vienna to overrun the West. This is a case of the accusers trying to foment a civilizational clash that Christians, Jews and Muslims all reject and fear.
And then there are the political gamesters, trying to gain an advantage during this American political season. They are quick to blame the administration for what it says, does or doesn’t do. They miss the point, of course, by turning the “us-them” struggle against terrorism into an “us-them” struggle against the opposite political party.
The apologists, the accusers and the political gamesters are the last people we should listen to for answers at a time like this. The reality is that some militant fanatics decided to attack American government facilities, planned and bided their time, and carried out their act of terrorism on the anniversary of 9/11. They chose a pretext — a bigoted anti-Muslim film — to “justify” their action, just as fanatics have done in the past. They deserve no understanding on our part; they do not represent all Muslims, and they certainly do not deserve the political satisfaction of dividing Americans further from each other, widening the divide in an already dangerously polarized American society. If we allow this to happen — if we allow the apologists, the accusers, and the politicians to define what happened in Benghazi, Cairo or Sanaa according to their own narrow agendas — we will give the terrorists a political victory they do not deserve.
It is instead a moment to unite behind our government as we mourn the victims and stand up for our diplomats serving abroad. It is a time to join together to try to understand a region where long-held assumptions — assumptions that have been shared and have guided the policies of Republicans and Democrats alike — have been shattered.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it right when she said the attack in Libya was perpetrated by a small and savage group, not by the Libyan government. We should expect that government, as well as the Egyptian and Yemeni governments, to search for, apprehend and punish those responsible for these heinous crimes against our diplomats and our embassies. We should work with them as they do so. This is the American way of pursuing justice for those who attack us.