Americans and Libyans are mourning the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his American colleagues after a vicious attack Tuesday on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
A mob armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades ostensibly was reacting to Innocence of Muslims, an obscure film by a California real estate developer. Video excerpts, which portray Islam and the Prophet Mohammed scurrilously, appeared on YouTube.
Hundreds of demonstrators firebombed the consulate in Benghazi, also killing several Libyan security guards. At the same time, thousands of protesters marched on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down an American flag.
The Libya attack was apparently launched by an extreme Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia. Some U.S. officials believe it was planned, not spontaneous.
Libyan and Egyptian authorities are responsible for the security of consulates and embassies in their countries. They failed to provide adequately for the safety of the Americans and their installations.
The government in Libya is still recovering from its recent change of power, backed by the United States, from dictator Moammar Gadhafi to the present inchoate regime. It has held elections and is writing a constitution.
President Obama vowed to bring the killers to justice. Libya's transitional government expressed its condolences.
Where does that leave the United States? At this time of grieving, Americans will have no patience with presidential or other candidates who take advantage of the tragedy to score political points off the opposition. Unfortunately, the campaigns of both Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney sniped at each other on Wednesday over the attack.
Security at U.S. diplomatic posts across the Muslim world should be tightened, as the White House demanded Wednesday, but their staffs should not be withdrawn. The State Department has ordered "non-emergency" personnel out of Libya.
Elsewhere, including in Egypt, American diplomats need to stand firm in the face of increased danger, and show the strength of U.S. institutions as America carries out democratic elections.
Americans can hope that the hate-filled people who make films such as the one that provoked the attacks see the results of their actions and show restraint. Yet killings of innocent people are never an appropriate way to avenge perceived attacks on Islam.
Americans are used to seeing their soldiers die, unfortunately. But this week's attack is a reminder that violence has also claimed a share of the nation's diplomatic corps, including five ambassadors between 1968 and 1979.
Such service is not to be taken for granted. The four Americans in Libya also gave their lives on America's front line.