09/11/2012, BENGHAZI, LIBYA
U.S Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was committed, idealistic, willing to take risks and eager to find out what was really happening in obscure corners of the world.
John Christopher “Chris” Stevens grew up in the East Bay community of Piedmont, graduated from the University of California Berkeley in 1982, and UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1989. His first service overseas was as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
He was the son of a lawyer, Jan Stevens, and a now-retired Marin Symphony cellist, Mary Commanday.
J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador killed in an attack in Benghazi, Libya hitched a ride into that country last year by sea — the only way in with a civil war in progress. “There weren’t any flights, so we came in by a Greek cargo ship,” recalling his arrival in Benghazi.
The improbable journey was fitting for Mr. Stevens was fluent in Arabic and had traveled throughout the Middle East. An easygoing but determined career diplomat, he had made the region the focus of his two-decade career. Describing the episode he played down the dangers inherent in opening a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Instead, he focused on explaining his mission there: to support a democratic transition in Libya after 40 years of rule by Muammar Gaddafi.
The attack on the U.S. Consulate building also killed 3 other diplomatic personnel. The circumstances of the attack — including the motives and any security lapses that contributed to their deaths — are still not known.
Funny and charming, with a broad smile and wide curiosity, Mr. Stevens made friends easily and kept them, colleagues said.
“We were on opposite sides in a way,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former top adviser to the Palestinian Authority who first dealt with Mr. Stevens during peace negotiations.
“During a meeting, he was very proper and professional. Having a coffee after the meeting, he was very friendly” and asked a lot of questions, Mr. Omari said. “You ended up with a diplomat who had texture.”
Mr. Stevens had served in Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, but Libya became the center of his career. He served there three times, beginning in the years before Gaddafi fell, when the mercurial leader was trying to repair decades of poor relations with Washington. Mr. Stevens was the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Libya from 2007 to 2009.
When the Arab Spring revolts spread to Libya, Mr. Stevens met with representatives overseas and eventually set up the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. He returned to what he proudly called a “democratic Libya” as ambassador this spring.
“He was good natured about it. He wasn’t afraid in places other people might think were scary,” said Christopher’s brother Tom Stevens.
Mr. Stevens acknowledged a rise in violence in Libya, especially among small Islamist groups.
“It’s a function of there being a lot of freedom and desire to express views and agendas,” he said. “When people cross the line, it’s also a function of a lack of a strong state and police to enforce the law.”
Austin Tichenor, a high school classmate, college roommate and lifelong friend, said Mr. Stevens was passionate about this unique career.
“He understood so much about the Middle East,” said Mr. Tichenor. “The only small solace is that he died the same way he lived,” in the thick of things.
Mr. Stevens had worked as an international trade lawyer and a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco before joining the State Department. Arash Babaoff, a friend of Mr. Stevens’s since the 1990s, described him as an intensely committed diplomat.
“It was his life,” Mr. Babaoff explained. “He was just someone who really had his heart in this, and he really felt like he was making relationships and headway.”