Sadly, a separate assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic staffers presents a different lesson. Despite ample U.S. military assistance, Libya's civil war isn't over. Stevens' brave support of Libyans' efforts to overthrow strongman Moammar Gadhafi likely made him a target.
"How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked. She placed the responsibility on "a small and savage group," not on "the people or government of Libya."
Over time, Americans will learn more about what happened and why. Already, the attacks are playing a part in presidential campaign politics.
As protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, the embassy released a statement that condemned "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." It was a salvo against Quran-burning preacher Terry Jones and the movie "The Innocence of Muslims," which deliberately lampoons Prophet Muhammad.
After protesters scaled the embassy walls, some conservatives (unaware of the timing of the statement's release) slammed diplomats for issuing an excuse of sorts for those who had attacked a U.S. facility.
The Obama administration also seemed to think the embassy had struck the wrong note. The administration disavowed the embassy's statement.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney then released a statement in which he asserted that it was "disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks ... but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." On Wednesday, after learning of Stevens' death, Romney hit Obama for sending "mixed messages."
Then the media spent the morning kicking Romney for jumping the gun as pundits liberally blamed preacher Jones and the movie-makers for inciting violence in Africa.
Now it seems the critics may have jumped the gun. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri had released a video calling on Islamists to avenge the death of a Libyan-born cleric killed in a U.S. drone attack. Intelligence officials believe the Benghazi attack was planned well in advance.