NEW YORK (PIX11)—The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya may have happened in the Middle East, but it is global in scale in that it was an attack on freedom of expression. It's also a local story. Because of the United Nations being here in New York, one of Libya's two main diplomatic offices, the Libyan Mission to the UN, is in Midtown. Also, two entities setting strong examples of countering offensive acts nonviolently are in New York as well.
The trailer for the film that may have sparked the anger that ultimately led to the fatal rocket attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, is offensive. The amateur film, made reputedly by an Israeli-American in California, depicts Egyptian Muslims killing Christians while Egyptian soldiers do nothing, and depicts the prophet Muhammad as a woman abusing, child molesting, eager-to-fight fool. The response to the film was offensive as well, according to the leader of one organization that promotes tolerance and understanding.
Awad noted that the U.S. government has supported pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East, called the Arab Spring, that have risen up in the last two years. Those movements overthrew nondemocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as well. However, he said, the attack at the U.S. consulate "should be a reminder to us that despite the moves to justice and the Arab Spring, there's still much to be done in those countries."
While CAIR is rooted in Islam, another tolerance promoting organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is rooted in Judaism. Like its Muslim counterpart, the Wiesenthal Center stresses nonviolence. It also trains groups of people to seek peaceful alternatives, even when they're deeply offended.
"We need to be able to say what we want," said the Wiesenthal Center's director, Mark Weitzman, "And to even be offended."
He pointed out that the world is by no means perfect, and that while dialogue among oppositional groups is the best route to promote peace and understanding, sometimes entities other than the disputing groups, such as governments or unaffiliated organizations, have to foster conditions that make dialogue possible.
"If it means having to take people to justice, then that is something to be considered," Weitzman said in an interview in his organization's Museum of Tolerance, on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
Visiting the museum for a seminar on tolerance Wednesday was a group of graduate students in counseling from Queens College. One of them provided a suggestion that she says she tries to convey to her counselees, which may be applicable in the case of the violence in Libya.
"Just think before you act," she said. "Take a step back and try to think it out." That advice seems to apply as words of caution to people who may have carried out the Libyan attack as a rash reaction to an offensive film. Ironically, however, the attackers may have also thought before they acted, in the worst possible way. This act of violence may have been planned well in advance, in which case it will be up to the new Libyan government, which overthrew the notoriously intolerant dictator Muammar Qaddafi, to foster a society in which dialogue, and not violence, is the response to conflict.
Noting that the Libyan government is essentially one in name only as various former rebel factions fight for territory and power, the outlook may not be rosy.