U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff members were killed in Benghazi, Libya on Tuesday. According to the Associated Press, Stevens and embassy employees were trying to evacuate staff from the consulate in the face of an attack by an angry mob shooting machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The violence began in protest over a film that was perceived as denigrating Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The movie was made by a man claiming to be an Israeli-American filmmaker using the pseudonym Sam Bacile, whom a representative says is now in hiding. It is being promoted by the incendiary anti-Muslim pastor, Terry Jones of Florida as well as the group Courageous Christians United, who run several anti-Islamic websites.
Stevens and other officials were reportedly moved to a safer building but, according to a Libyan Minister of the Interior, Wanis al-Sharef, the Libyan security team seems to have signaled where the Americans were to the mob. The building was then set on fire. Details are still emerging about the deaths, but the ambassador was taken to the Benghazi Medical Center. A doctor there said he died of ‘severe asphyxia’, or suffocation, apparently from smoke inhalation that caused bleeding of the stomach. He was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
In a written statement, later affirmed as he spoke from the Rose Garden, President Obama said:
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.
“I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”
He further praised Ambassador Stevens’ service as a career diplomat and his courage in working for freedom. As he spoke from the Rose Garden, he affirmed the government’s commitment to working with the Libyan government to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths.
Immediately, Mitt Romney seemed to politicize the crisis in comments that have been roundly condemned across the political spectrum. In response to an early statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo that criticized religious intolerance, made before the deaths were reported, Romney said, “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Even on Fox News, Peggy Noonan said, “I don’t feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours,” she said. “Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.” According to the Huffington Post, conservative blogger Erick Ericson warned Romney to be “cautious.” NBC’s Chuck Todd, called Romney’s words “irresponsible” and a “bad mistake” while National Journal’s Ron Fournier said the statement was “ham-handed” and “inaccurate.”
Nevertheless, Romney spent Wednesday ramping up his criticism of Obama at a time when the nation tries to absorb and mourn its loss.