Remembering Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens


Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 12, 2012.

JERUSALEM — In all the photographs that materialized today, which transformed the deeply private Chris Stevens into a public figure, his reserve and his intense presence are wholly perceptible, that rock solid part of him completely immutable.

Not a man given to flights of revelation, Chris's face nevertheless always revealed his true self — decent, sincere, guarded.

His face in fact informed me he had died. At a completely random lunch, which randomly took place at a restaurant where he and I occasionally used to indulge in big juicy burgers, a man sitting next to me randomly flashed his iPhone. I took in a distant headline — “Ambassador Killed” — and adjacent to the news what looked like Chris' familiar features. The incongruence jolted me; I assumed I had mis-seen.

I said, “Can I have a look at that again?”

More from GlobalPost: Where are the pluralists and moderates?

I met Chris Stevens sometime in the second half of the 90s, when he was stationed in Jerusalem.

From the get-go, it was clear that Chris was the American Graham Greene had always hoped to stumble across: lanky, blond and surprisingly handsome, a Californian by birth and temperament, easygoing, deeply shy, and intensely attuned, smart, smart, smart. He was always genial, and always veiled. His introspective being lodged a steel-trap mind.

It feels so futile to say it now, but Chris really was that American you always hope exists somewhere: Alert. Knowledgeable. Deeply invested. Winsome.

Our friend Jonas Jølle, a Norwegian diplomat now working in business, wrote me today.

"I wish I could think of something more memorable to say. I looked up to Chris as a role model, and I don't have many role models in the diplomatic service," he said.

The truth is that none of us do. Ed Abington, who served as the American Consul General in Jerusalem, says, "Chris was a wonderful and sensitive American diplomat, one who was able to see and report on the suffering that conflict in the Middle East has brought on all peoples in the region, regardless of their religion … He was also a brave and courageous diplomat who served as the US Envoy to the Libyans fighting the despot dictator, Muammar Gaddafi … It is the greatest and saddest of ironies that his life was taken by a mob provoked by a film calculated to mock and denigrate one of the world's great religions."

The last time that Jonas, Chris and I were together was for a long, wine-drenched afternoon in the summer of 2006, before they both left Jerusalem. "I keep thinking about that magical cheese and wine soiree in your garden. Just the three of us..." Jonas wrote to me.

More from GlobalPost: Clash of civilizations? Not so much.

Then he mentions Chris' "ability to listen enthusiastically to what you were saying without interjecting himself or turning the conversation to himself, and his willingness to admit that he did not know the answer to many political issues, a rare trait in foreign policy experts."

Chris and I shared a birthday, and the dumb thrill of it ensured we never missed the date. Last March, just after he was confirmed for his first ambassadorial posting, I wrote to congratulate him and he responded, "Thank you Noga. It's all rather unreal. By the way, our birthday is coming up in a few weeks... !"

But I do him a disservice. Chris wrote richly detailed, expressive letters to a group of friends and family. From a 2008 e-mail entitled, "Condi comes to Tripoli:”

Qadhafi was waiting in a reception room, dressed in a white robe with a colorful sash. He wore a brooch in the shape of Africa, and his sash had a matching pattern of African continents stitched onto it. He wore a traditional Libyan black cap — similar to the Tunisian "chechia." To the surprise of many of us, he did not shake the Secretary's hand, but rather held his hand to his chest in the traditional alternative respectful greeting, and gestured to a chair next to him. But he shook the hands of all the men who filed in after her. This non-handshake subsequently inspired a rash of media commentary here. Was it a deliberate slight? Was it a gesture of Ramadan modesty? Who knows?

From a 2011 e-mail, headlined, "What the #$% is going on in Libya?!"

Qaddafi delivered a defiant (and some would say delusional) speech today, vowing to stay to the bitter end, and to kill those who oppose him. His supposedly westernized and "moderate" son Saif al-Islam gave a similarly angry speech the day before yesterday. These were fatal missteps, showing the Qaddafis for what they really are — in case anyone there needed additional proof — thuggish, violent, and obsessed with holding onto power.

More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage of the embassy attacks

I can't help but return to some of the garish images that emerged today. One or two reveal a waxy, stiff Chris, expiring in public and thus revealed in a manner entirely antithetical to the restrained, composed man he was.

The pictures hearken back to awful images from a generation ago. I wish they never existed. At this moment I am incapable of banishing them from my upset mind.

It's not just the obscenity and the tragedy they expose, or the travesty. It is the almost inadmissible paradox of an excellent man in such a wretched, wretched predicament.