The death of the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and other Americans in Libya is already causing finger-pointing in the presidential election—and a debate about free speech.
On Tuesday, the violence in Libya and Egypt erupted over a movie that portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, and it also caused a war of words between the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
The attacks in the two countries coincided with the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The U.S. embassy in Cairo apparently released a statement on Tuesday, without government approval, that concluded with the following sentence: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Protesters in Egypt had stormed the American embassy earlier in the day and tore down its American flags. On the same day, a U.S. consulate worker died in Benghazi, Libya.
The Romney campaign issued its own statement on Tuesday night condemning the American embassy statement.
“I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” Romney said.
However, the American embassy statement came before the attacks on the diplomats in Egypt and Libya, and not after the statement as Romney claimed.
The Obama administration then said the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued the statement on its own, without approval, and then attacked Romney in a separate statement.
“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” it said.
Hours later, the U.S. ambassador, Stevens, and three co-workers were killed on Wednesday in a rocket attack as they evacuated the American embassy in Benghazi.
President Obama paid tribute to the slain diplomats and added, “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. “deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. … Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
Before the deaths on Wednesday, a top Romney adviser told Foreign Policy magazine that the violence in Egypt and Libya was linked to Obama’s foreign policy.
Romney senior foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson said, "The events in Egypt and Libya show the failure of the Egyptian and Libyan governments to uphold their obligations to keep our diplomatic missions safe and secure and the regard in which the United States is held under President Obama in these two countries," he said. "It's all part of a broader scheme of the president's failure to be an effective leader for U.S. interests in the Middle East."
On Wednesday morning, Romney paid tribute to the victims and continued his criticism of the White House's handling of the Libya situation.
"We mourn their loss and join together in prayer," Romney said. "With these words, I extend my condolences to the grieving loved ones. I know that people across America are grateful for their service."
But he repeated claims the Obama administration was sending the wrong message.
"I think it is a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," he said.
The left-leaning web site Talking Points Memo said Romney tied the criticism to constitutional issues.
"We have confidence in our cause in America. We respect our constitution. We stand for the principles our constitution protects. We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world," he was quoted as saying in Jacksonville.
The movie that started the riots has only been reportedly seen by a handful of people and it was produced by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American real-estate developer, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal.
A trailer promoting the movie made its way to the Internet and was edited to include Arabic subtitles.
The Associated Press says Bacile has gone into hiding and spoke with the news service by phone. He said the subtitles were added by a third party but appeared to be an accurate translation.
As of Wednesday, the movie trailer remained on YouTube.
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