American exceptional

It seems like a constant sub-plot in our nation's great debate is one variation or another on this fundamental question: What does it mean to be an American? I kind of doubt that Chris Stevens -- the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was assassinated yesterday -- ever talked about that much, if at all. He was too busy living it:

Following his father, Jan Stevens, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1982. He then volunteered for the Peace Corps as an English teacher for two years in a remote village in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains — "and quickly fell in love with this part of the world." Still, his next step was a law degree from the University of California's Hastings College of Law in 1989 and employment as a trade attorney in Washington.

One day, said a former colleague recounting Stevens' retelling of the story, the young lawyer put his head down at his desk and said to himself, "I can't do this anymore." He decided then to apply for the Foreign Service, joining in 1991.

By every account, he was a remarkably upbeat and optimistic person, a believer in democracy, diplomacy, and the better half of human nature...even though he knew the risks he was taking. In fact, he sneaked into Bengazhi on a cargo shipd uring the height of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, and helped save that city from the dictator's wrath.

Mr. Obama rewarded him with the nomination to become the first ambassador in a post-Qaddafi Libya, and he arrived in May with indefatigable enthusiasm for the country’s prospects as a free, Western-friendly democracy.

“The whole atmosphere has changed for the better,” he wrote in an e-mail to friends and family in July. “People smile more and are much more open with foreigners. Americans, French and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let’s hope it lasts.”

Instead, Stevens' life was snuffed out by extremists, possibly reacting to a crude anti-Islamic film, although the facts -- like a lot of this complicated story -- are very much uncertain. We also don't know much yet about three other Americans who were murdered -- another diplomat and two Marines. Even without all the facts, everyone on all sides is eager to fit the death of an American hero into their own little narrative.

I don't really want to talk about people politicizing the tragedy because, frankly, accusing one side or another of politicizing a tragedy is, well, politicizing a tragedy in and of itself. When the dust settles, we should have a robust -- and honest -- debate about U.S. policy in the Middle East. But the dust hasn't settled yet. We do know that the hateful bastards who killed Chris Stevens are the worst that humanity has to offer. But it's hard to give up hope, not when you think of Stevens' bravery and not when you see the Libyans (pictured above) who took to the streets to protest -- not against America but against the thugs who killed our ambassador.

Freedom is hard work -- a lot harder than throwing a batch of "freedom fries" in the deep fryer. Chris Stevens was a fighter for free speech -- even though free speech means that an imbecile can call himself Sam Baciile and release a religious hate film without government censorship. Chris Stevens was a fighter for religious freedom -- even as he was targeted by those with a warped vision of the Koran. And he was a fighter for strangers in a faraway foreign land, Libya, to live their daily lives in greater freedom -- until the day when some of those Libyans killed him.

A lot of us believe in the same freedoms that Chris Stevens believed in. But he risked his very life for freedom of others -- and he paid the ultimate price. That made him a remarkably exceptional American.