Sep. 16, 2012: U.S. Embassies Invaded, Ambassador Killed on 9/11 Anniversary

It’s been a tumultuous week. Many of us probably expected the biggest news story on Tuesday to be little more than a reflection about the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks (along with, perhaps, a reminder that the new class of middle school children weren’t even born yet when the catastrophe rocked our nation). Or perhaps we would be talking about construction on the new 9/11 museum, which resumed after arguments over the budget were resolved on Monday.

But then September 11 came around, and the morning brought with it violence and death as protesters in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya, stormed their respective U.S. embassies. In Egypt, the mob scaled the 15-foot embassy walls, tore down the embassy’s American flag — which was at half-mast in deference to the tragedy 11 years before — and replaced it with an Islamic banner.

Libya, on the other hand, was even worse, as enraged protesters burned down the consulate compound. The workers were initially evacuated into a second building, which was deemed to be safer, but it appears that members of the Libyan security team told the mob where the Americans were hiding, so that building came under attack next in a rain of flames and gunfire. By the end of the night, four American workers within the embassy were dead. Among the four was Chris Stevens, the official U.S. Ambassador to Libya who was widely recognized in the Middle East as a model diplomat for his exceptional empathy and compassion. As he wrote about the post-revolution environment in Libya just a few months ago, when he was transferred to Benghazi,

The whole atmosphere has changed for the better. People smile more and are much more open with foreigners. Americans, French and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let’s hope it lasts!

So what sparked these attacks? According to most reports, “a stupid movie.” Apparently the movie “Innocence of Muslims,” which portrays the prophet Muhammad as “a homosexual who endorses extramarital sex and pedophilia, was enough to spark the violent murder of international diplomats. (You can see a brief trailer for the film, which is honestly of pretty low quality, here.) The film was made months ago, but it’s gotten a lot of play in some foreign media outlets over the past few days, with several Egyptian hosts calling it “a Coptic Christian and American plot to denigrate the prophet.”

If you’ve never heard of “Innocence of Muslims,” don’t worry. Until Tuesday, it was little more than a glorified Youtube clip put together by a real estate developer. Too bad you weren’t informed about the big “plot.”

Stunningly, though, in the wake of these attacks, the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued an apology for the video, saying that they condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” With the media seizing on that baffling apology, President Obama released a statement the following morning to disavow the embassy’s comments, saying that their words had not been authorized. (That didn’t stop MSNBC commentators Mike Barnicle and Donny Deutsch from saying that pastor Terry Jones, who endorsed the film but had nothing to do with its creation, should be charged as an accessory to Chris Stevens’ murder.) Obama further ordered the tightening of security at U.S. embassies around the globe and vowed that the U.S. would track down the perpetrators of the “outrageous attack” in Libya.

The other side of this story, though, is that the attacks may have had nothing to do with “Innocence of Muslims.” The Benghazi assault in particular was a “complex attack” that likely would have required a great deal of planning, originating well before this alleged outrage over the amateur film. The use of a rocket-propelled grenade at the end of the strike also suggests that this was far more than just angry protesters going much too far. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers explicitly called it “a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid” involving precisely executed “military movements.” Sources indicate that the low-profile film, in fact, was merely a diversion designed to cover up the real reason for the attacks: a revenge killing for the death of al Qaida’s second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in June. The slaying of al-Libi has been called al Qaida’s greatest setback since the death of Osama bin Laden, so if this was a revenge killing, it should come as little surprise that it was orchestrated to happen on September 11th. It’s worth noting that Stevens himself was warned several years ago about a group of jihadist extremists near Benghazi.

In any case, the incident is a major quandary for the Obama administration just weeks before the presidential election. Beyond the political jousting over the tragedy, the U.S. is also likely to find its fragile relationship with Libya quite strained. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to mitigate this effect in her statement about the “savage” attack, noting that the actions of a small group do not necessarily make the entire country evil, just as one man’s movie does not represent the beliefs of an entire nation. But it’s still problematic for diplomacy when you can’t assure the safety of your ambassadors in a foreign country, particularly since laws have yet to be firmly established across Libya in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It would be devastating for the country and for the region as a whole if Libya’s fledgling democracy crumbled so soon after the revolution against dictator Muammar Gadhafi reached its conclusion.

Florida A&M University brought back a very different sort of tragedy this week. Last November, drum major Robert Champion died in a hazing incident after the football team’s final game of the season. Sad, to be sure, but not something you’d expect to be in the news almost a year later.

However, in the midst of a lawsuit over the death, Florida A&M released a statement that not only did the university have no responsibility to protect its students from off-campus hazing, but that Champion caused his own death. According to the university, Champion chose to be hazed, so his institution should not be held to a higher standard than others who could have prevented his death, including the victim himself: “Respectfully, as a 26 year old adult and leader in FAMU’s band, Mr. Champion should have refused to participate in the planned hazing event and reported it to law enforcement or University administrators.”

Champion, after all, had signed a university pledge months before his death not to haze or to be hazed — although other band members called the pledge little more than a joke, since those who were not hazed were not accepted into the band. Either way, the other students involved are facing criminal charges of their own: 11 were charged with felony hazing, and two others are being tried for misdemeanor hazing.

While lawsuits over harm caused, in part, by oneself are generally invalid, states that have enacted hazing legislation (including Florida) tend to regard it as a special form of coercion which removes that defense for the institution. “In other words, you can argue that by joining the band, Champion understood that there might be some hazing, but that’s not a defense” for the university, according to Doug Fierberg, a hazing law attorney.

Needless to say, Champion’s parents are “appalled” by the university’s statements, as are many analysts, but Florida A&M seems more concerned about its fate in the lawsuit than anything else. Its lawyers have motioned for the lawsuit to be thrown out, or at least delayed until the criminal cases reach a verdict.

The university’s statements may or may not have any effect on the outcome of the pending court cases. Either way, whether you agree with their argument or not, it’s definitely drawn plenty of bad press on an issue that was already buried under the metaphorical rug. Let this be a lesson on stupidity to any public relations experts out there.

In election news, Obama is leading Mitt Romney in the polls following the Democratic National Convention. Neither party’s convention was especially spectacular, but Obama seems to have taken a small lead as a result, which is a good sign for him moving forward. On the other hand, the big question is whether voters will actually come to the polls for him in the same numbers as in 2008, as well as how long the post-convention bounce will last. It should be noted that Obama has a substantial lead among people who are simply registered to vote, but a virtually nonexistent one-point edge among likely voters.

Still, the Romney campaign has significant challenges to overcome in the next six weeks. Romney’s continued ambiguity lies at the heart of the problem, as he passed up a key opportunity to reveal his plans during the Republican National Convention just over two weeks ago. Thus far, much of his campaign has been focused on acting as an alternative to Obama, much like Obama contrasted himself with George W. Bush in 2008. While emphasizing the differences between oneself and the sitting president is a proven strategy, some of his supporters worry that voters will be reluctant to support a candidate whose agenda is too vague. Romney will soon have to decide whether he wants to remedy this problem, or whether he thinks that not giving Obama an obvious policy point to attack will work for him in the long run.

In any case, both sides have a lot of work to do in their fight over the remaining battleground states. I’ve often said that unless a landslide is in the works, you can only really begin to judge the course of an election in the six weeks leading up to the vote. So expect the next month and a half to be a wild ride.

Let’s close the book on the U.S. Open. In the weather-delayed Monday men’s final, Andy Murray finally earned his first Grand Slam title, overcoming defending champion Novak Djokovic 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. The roller-coaster match featured some of the most brilliant tennis you’ll ever see despite swirling winds that disrupted serves and volleys throughout the match. (One volley alone lasted an amazing 55 strokes, pushing the players to their limits.) The five-set match also tied the record for the longest U.S. Open final of all time at a brutal four hours and 54 minutes.

After the first two sets, it looked like Murray might run away with the win over Djokovic, who was steaming over both the weather and a few borderline calls. But Djokovic hit his stride and positively dominated Murray in the third and fourth, leading the commentators to suggest that Murray was finished. Yet it was the Brit who broke serve in the very first game of the fifth set and held off Djokovic’s desperate challenges the rest of the way, winning for the first time after enduring four runner-up finishes since 2008. The win propels Murray past the injured Rafael Nadal to #3 in the men’s world rankings, behind only Djokovic and top-ranked Roger Federer.

In the women’s final, Serena Williams took out Victoria Azarenka to cap off her 15th Grand Slam title. She also became the first female tennis player to exceed $40 million in tournament winnings. The real story was that the match was as close as it was, at 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. While Azarenka was ranked #1 in the world, that was largely because Williams, currently fourth, missed a number of tournaments due to injury. Williams has been dominant since her return, and hadn’t lost a single set in the tournament prior to the final, while Azarenka needed a nail-biter third-set tiebreak just to beat Samantha Stosur in the quarterfinals, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5). But when Azarenka crushed Williams in the second set, Williams’ unstoppable march to the trophy suddenly looked uncertain, and the match looked all but over when Azarenka broke serve in the seventh game of the final set and then held her own serve to take a 5-3 lead. Williams, though, scored all the clutch points in the home stretch to take the last four games and the title.

In the men’s doubles final, twin brothers Mike and Bob Bryan trounced Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek, 6-3, 6-4. The 34-year-old Bryan brothers never faced a single break point in the final en route to their 12th Grand Slam, which ties the record for the most by a doubles pair since 1968, the start of the Open era. And on the women’s side, the top prize went to Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who were similarly dominant in a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in their final. Errani and Vinci’s tournament run was also notable for their unlikely performances in the singles tournament. Neither Errani, ranked 10th, nor Vinci, #20, was expected to clear the fourth round, but they managed to reach the quarterfinals — where they were paired against one another. In one of the most stressful matches of the tournament, both players resisted showing any emotion at all, and Errani didn’t even smile when she earned a spot in the semifinals. (She subsequently lost to Williams in straight sets, 6-1, 6-2.) But the two were able to celebrate together when they took home the doubles crown.

Let’s close this week’s post with something inspirational. If you’re not familiar with the show MasterChef, it’s basically what it sounds like. Every season, the show crowns one “home cook” who is able to surpass all others through rigorous challenges far beyond the capabilities of most professional chefs. Whether they have to construct a dish on the fly from wild ingredients, cope with nearly impossible time pressure, or handle crazily difficult foods like sushi and soufflés, each week brings on a fresh set of tasks that only a master of the culinary arts can clear.

Judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich, all of whom are well-known elite chefs, crowned the season three winner of MasterChef on Monday: Houston native Christine Ha. Her previous experience primarily consisted of cooking for her husband, but you wouldn’t have known it from the meals she devised throughout the competition, including the three-course meal of a crab vegetable salad, braised pork belly, and a a coconut lime sorbet. (Believe it or not, the judges said her final offering was simpler than that of the other finalist, Josh Marks, but hers surpassed his in cohesiveness.) In the end, Ha’s superior sense of taste, smell, and touch carried her beyond all of her competitors, proving that she could rely on those to craft extraordinary cuisine.

It’s a good thing that she could rely on those senses, too. Especially since she’s blind.

Christine Ha, MasterChef winner

Yes, that’s right. Christine Ha, who proved herself to be the standout among about 100 premiere chefs, cannot see. (She was permitted to have an aide help her around the unfamiliar kitchen and read labels to her, but she otherwise did not help Ha with any of the food preparation, including dangerous tasks like sushi-cutting. Many other contestants inadvertently burned themselves and sliced their hands during challenges that left Ha unscathed.) Ha was one of the consistently strong competitors throughout the show, making dazzling dishes even when saddled with subpar ingredients (such as when other contestants controlled “pressure tests”), and finding ways to be innovative yet effective even when dealing with completely unfamiliar ingredients.

For her efforts, Ha received a $250,000 cash prize and a cookbook deal. But more importantly, she proved to the world what she could accomplish even in the face of major adversity, and she stands as an inspiration to millions.

Other articles of interest:
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Scandals Show California Is Broken, Not Broke
Should felons vote? In some states, it’s easy. In others, impossible.
Troubled Indianapolis Symphony cancels first two weeks of concerts
Mother donates 6,000 ounces of breast milk to toddler
Modern medicine: Lab-grown genitals, spray-on skin
How will ex-cop Drew Peterson fare in prison?
Tulane’s Devon Walker breaks neck
Notre Dame to ACC in All Sports but FootballNFLPA head writes to Roger Goodell
Peyton Manning throws 400th career TD, wins in Broncos debut
NFL plans for referee lockout
Apple iPad Mini Photos Leaked
Why Apple’s Shares ‘Sell-Off’ Post iPhone Debut May Not Work This Time Around


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