J. CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: FOR VETERAN ENVOY, RETURN TO LIBYA WAS FULL OF HOPE
Published: September 12, 2012
- WASHINGTON — J. Christopher Stevens arrived in Benghazi, Libya, in April 2011 aboard a Greek cargo ship carrying a dozen American diplomats and guards and enough vehicles and equipment to set up a diplomatic beachhead in the middle of an armed rebellion.
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Even then, the polarized views about the NATO-led intervention were on display, as were the dangers of diplomacy in a turbulent nation. The rebels fighting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had hoisted American, British and French flags in the plaza in Benghazi that they renamed Freedom Square, Mr. Stevens often recalled, but a car bomb later exploded in the parking lot of the hotel where he had settled.
That forced him to move into the villa in Benghazi where, more than a year later, he died Tuesday. Mr. Stevens, 52, and three other State Department employees were killed during a prolonged assault on the consulate, which he was visiting to inaugurate a cultural center as part of his efforts to deepen ties in a new Libya.
He became the first United States ambassador killed in an attack while on duty since Adolph Dubs was kidnapped and killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1979. The circumstances of the attack — including the motives and any security lapses — are still not known.
“It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi,” President Obama said in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, “because it is a city that he helped to save.”
Mr. Stevens, who was fluent in Arabic, knew better than most diplomats in the American Foreign Service the opportunities and travails facing Libya after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi, and was undaunted.
“The image of the striped-pants ambassador who goes to cocktail parties and steeples his hands — that was not Chris Stevens,” said Jeffrey D. Feltman, a former assistant secretary of state and now under secretary general at the United Nations, who worked closely with him.
After having served as the deputy ambassador during Colonel Qaddafi’s rule, Mr. Stevens became the Obama administration’s main interlocutor to the rebels based in Benghazi who ultimately overthrew Colonel Qaddafi with the help of NATO airstrikes. Mr. Obama rewarded Mr. Stevens 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.”
For those who knew him, Mr. Stevens was an easygoing, accessible, candid and at times irreverent diplomat, with a deep understanding of Arab culture and politics that began when he was a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
“The thing that struck me was that he had a level of candor that was unusual for a diplomat,” said Sidney Kwiram, who conducted research for Human Rights Watch in Libya during the revolution and afterward and often met with him. She last spoke with him two weeks ago after her own visit to Benghazi, spending two hours on the telephone discussing Libya’s new political forces. “There was no formality to his rank,” she said. “He didn’t take himself too seriously, but he took his job very seriously.”
He also earned bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, recalled twice visiting him in Libya, most recently in July, when Mr. Stevens “insisted on personally making me a cappuccino, a task that he carried out with as much pride and proficiency as his diplomatic mission.”
Mr. Stevens, a native of California and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, joined the Foreign Service in 1991. He spent much of his career in the Middle East, serving in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, where he focused on the Palestinian territories, and in State Department offices overseeing policy in the region. In Syria in 2001 and 2002, he courted Iraqi exiles before the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government the next year. When the embassy in Damascus, Syria, held his farewell party, he insisted on it being in a disco and invited all the Iraqis, who were fractious even then. “This was probably the only time the Iraqis sat at one table — before or since,” said a State Department diplomat who served with him.
His return to Libya took place in circumstances that would challenge any diplomat. Mr. Feltman said he was surprised by the network of contacts Mr. Stevens established in Benghazi in weeks, shaping the administration’s understanding of the rebellion’s leaders. As he prepared to take up his post as ambassador this year, Mr. Stevens appeared in an introductory video recalling the United States’ Civil War as an example of overcoming strife. “We know that Libya is still recovering from an intense period of conflict,” he said. “And there are many courageous Libyans who bear the scars of that battle.”
He developed a reputation as a keen observer of Libya’s politics, and, as Ms. Kwiram noted, a patient listener who eagerly sought out activists, diplomats and journalists. He also kept up his routine of daily runs through goat farms, olive groves and vineyards nearby.
In his e-mail to family and friends, he joked about the embassy’s Fourth of July party.
“Somehow our clever staff located a Libyan band that specializes in 1980s soft rock,” he wrote, “so I felt very much at home.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the wall on Mr. Stevens’s Facebook page had turned into a memorial as friends from high school, college, the Peace Corps and the State Department posted photos and eulogies. “In our 1983 Peace Corps training in Morocco, there was a tall, blond kid who was known, among other things, as the one with the unfailing old-school courtesy toward all,” wrote Valerie Staats, who is now the Peace Corps director in Sierra Leone. Mr. Stevens, she recalled, “always said he wanted to be an ambassador, and we didn’t doubt him.”
Mervat Mhani, an activist for the Free Generation Movement in Libya, said she could “no longer hold my head up high as a Libyan.”
Harvey Morris contributed reporting from London; Kareem Fahim from Beirut, Lebanon; and Michael S. Schmidt from Washington.
SEAN SMITH: ATTACK VICTIM SHARED HIS FEARS IN MESSAGES
Published: September 12, 2012
- Sean Smith, an Air Force veteran working on temporary assignment as an information management officer in Libya, was one of the four Americans killed Tuesday in the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
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Mr. Smith joined the Foreign Service a decade ago and before going to Libya, he had served in Baghdad; Pretoria, South Africa; Montreal; and most recently The Hague, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
During downtime, Mr. Smith was an avid player of an online multiplayer game called Eve Online, in which hundreds of thousands of participants across the globe took on roles like pirates or diplomats in a science fiction setting. Mr. Smith’s online name was “vile rat.”
Alex Gianturco, an Eve Online player and a friend of Mr. Smith’s, said on his blog on Wednesday that he had been chatting online with Mr. Smith before the attack, and Mr. Smith indicated that he knew he was in some danger.
He wrote as protesters gathered outside: “Assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.”
Mr. Smith was so well known that fellow players elected him to a group that confers with CCP, the company that designed the game, about improvements. He was widely known for using his diplomacy skills to moderate online conflicts.
Mr. Gianturco said that players had become used to Mr. Smith leaving play during perilous moments abroad, only to return to his online adventures when things calmed in the real world.
“In Baghdad the same kind of thing happened — incoming sirens, he’d vanish, we’d freak out and he’d come back O.K. after a bit,” Mr. Gianturco said.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Smith’s final message was “gunfire,” Mr. Gianturco said. Then he disconnected and never returned.
Survivors include Mr. Smith’s wife, Heather, and two children.
RON TAYLOR, AUSTRALIAN MARINE CONSERVATIONIST WHO FILMED SHARKS FOR ‘JAWS’
Published: September 10, 2012
- In 1974 Ron Taylor was building a thriving documentary business filming sharks when he got a call asking if he would like to work on a Steven Spielberg movie called “Jaws.”
He agreed, and his contributions resulted in some of the most terrifying moments in American film, as a scientist played by Richard Dreyfuss, suspended in an iron cage, is attacked by a 26-foot Great White that bends the cage wide open.
The scene, though supposedly taking place in the waters of a fictional New England community, Amity Island, was actually filmed in Mr. Taylor’s native Australia, using a small cage and a very short stuntman to make the 14-foot shark look bigger. (Large mechanical sharks were used in other scenes.) The sequence made Mr. Taylor, who worked with his wife, Valerie, a much sought-after producer of shark footage.
He died on Sunday at 78 in Sydney. The cause was leukemia, a family friend told The Associated Press.
Although Mr. Taylor worked on other movies, including “Orca,” a 1977 horror film, and “Sky Pirates,” a 1986 adventure film, he was proudest of the documentary work. One series for National Geographic called “Blue Wilderness” (1992) involved filming white pointer sharks off South Africa without the protection of a cage.
As he and his wife became dedicated conservationists, he expressed concern that “Jaws,” a 1975 blockbuster about a murderous giant shark that terrorizes a beach community, had hurt the image of a creature he had come to respect.
“It did a lot of damage for sharks,” Mr. Taylor said on Australian television in 2005. “People went out with a vendetta to kill sharks because they believed that sharks were really like that.”
Ron Josiah Taylor was born March 8, 1934, in Sydney. An avid swimmer and spear fisherman, his interest in film grew after outfitting his father’s 8- millimeter home-movie camera for underwater use.
Mr. Taylor first attracted wide attention in 1963, when he sold a documentary to NBC called “Shark Hunters.” (He was one himself: In 1961 he reported that he and a partner killed 50 sharks over a weekend using spears with hypodermic needles filled with poisons.)
Mr. Taylor met his wife, a champion swimmer and spear fishing enthusiast, at the St. George Spear Fishing Club. She proposed, and they were married in 1963, beginning an enduring partnership that centered on their love of the ocean. She is his only immediate survivor.
Ms. Taylor was always an equal player. Once her husband custom-ordered a $2,000 chain-mail suit to wear in a documentary exploring how it felt to be bitten by a shark. When it arrived, he couldn’t fit into it, so she took his place.
“It’s a real thrill to sit down there and have a wild animal trying to chew your arm off,” she said in the television interview.
In his later years, Mr. Taylor concentrated on marine conservation projects. In 2003 he was named a member of the Order of Australia for this work.
While the Taylors typically expressed little fear of sharks, Mr. Taylor did have a close call while filming the documentary “Blue Water, White Death” (1971).
“My 35-millimeter camera had run out of film, and I was sitting on top of the shark cage that was suspended about 30 feet underneath a dead sperm whale,” he recounted in a 2001 interview with a Los Angeles film editors group.
While watching the sharks feed on the carcass, “I received a hard blow to the side of my head,” he said. “I didn’t see the nine-foot Oceanic White Tip Shark coming. The blow almost knocked me unconscious. I could feel my body going limp, and seawater was running into my mouth beside my mouthpiece. My vision was narrowing. Luckily, I regained control.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 12, 2012
Because of an editing error, an obituary on Tuesday about Ron Taylor, a conservationist who shot footage of sharks for “Jaws” and other movies, referred incorrectly to the setting of “Jaws.” It takes place in the fictional town Amity Island — not on Martha’s Vineyard, although most of the movie was filmed there.