Each morning as I traveled to my office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I drove by a small monument to the 11 people who lost their lives in 1998 when al Qaeda detonated a bomb in a truck parked outside the American embassy. In 2008, during the first ever visit to Tanzania by a sitting U.S. president, George and Laura Bush observed a moment of silence at that monument, and held a private meeting with families of those who were struck down in that terrible attack.
Later that same year, we marked the 10th anniversary of the bombing with a solemn ceremony just feet from the same spot. The remembrance was led by religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, and by some of those who were on the scene during the explosion. A small tree was planted on the embassy grounds.
When we’re confronted with a brutal, murderous act like these bombings, or like the terrorist assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his three brave compatriots, naturally our first reaction is anger. Unadulterated outrage at those who invaded our consulate and murdered our people. We also feel great frustration and a tremendous sense of loss. There is the pain of losing four good men and great Americans. By all accounts Stevens, the most prominent of the victims, was a simply outstanding diplomat and a brilliant voice for the American people. There is also the loss of what could have been. The attack is a terrible setback for the newly free Libyan people, who have been trying to take the difficult first steps down a path toward liberty, democracy, and human dignity.
But based upon what I saw as ambassador to Tanzania, we should also, at least some day in the future, feel hope. It may seem impossible right now in the wake of the brutal events in Benghazi; I’m sure hope seemed impossible to my friend John Lange, a fellow Wisconsin Badger who was charge d’affaires in Dar es Salaam during the 1998 bombing. But by the time I reached Tanzania nine years after John’s courageous work, it was obvious that a warm friendship and remarkable partnership had grown from the rubble and destruction. In the months after the bombing, the American and Tanzanian governments joined hands to take on a wide range of poverty-driven challenges—from fighting AIDS and malaria to helping create and distribute textbooks. We assisted the government in strengthening democracy and tackling corruption.
Symbols of a close American-Tanzanian friendship could be seen everywhere. When the new embassy was built in Dar es Salaam, a magnificent ebony tree of life carving was placed in the chancery’s common area. This traditional work of art has tremendous meaning for Tanzanians and represents the continuity of life and the interconnectedness of cultures and traditions. For visitors and members of the embassy family, it represents how life can grow in the wake of even the most tragic events.
The greatest privilege of my career was showing President Bush the living signs of hope that exist all around Tanzania. I escorted him as he visited an AIDS clinic in Dar and handed out mosquito bed nets in Arusha, as he and Mrs. Bush walked through classrooms at the Masai Girls School, and as endless crowds celebrated each part of his historic visit.
When terrorists struck Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, they undoubtedly believed that their attacks would cripple U.S. influence in the region, and drive a permanent wedge between us and Tanzanians. As I saw those crowds, as I reflected upon the open letters from Muslim leaders welcoming President Bush and the many billboards and handwritten signs expressing friendship and hospitality, I couldn’t help but think that the terrorists had utterly failed.
In the wake of the Benghazi murders, there’s one other emotion we feel in addition to the anger, frustration, and sense of loss: defiant resolve. Just as they did with their attacks on Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, on the USS Cole and the World Trade Center, the bad guys (my not-so-subtle terminology) want us to back down from the cause of liberty and from helping others who seek to lift lives and plant seeds of hope. I don’t want to give the terrorists what they’re looking for.
I never had the honor of meeting Ambassador Stevens, but I’m guessing he would have felt the same way.
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