On a wall inside the diplomatic entrance to the State Department in Washington, D.C., is a long list of names engraved on imported white marble. This week 12 more names will be etched into the stone there. These are the names of foreign service officers who have died serving their nation overseas. Men and women, victims of criminal and terrorist violence. Parents, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, who have enriched foreign soils with their blood. A list of names. A lexicon of loss.
Some of those on that list were our friends; they were all our colleagues. Like the more famous Vietnam Memorial a half mile to the south, the names on the wall do not tell the story of their lives nor the reasons for their deaths. We have often passed by the wall in the State Department. We have stopped, as others stop, to touch, to feel their names. Carved letters, wounded marble. A slight monument to ordinary heroes.Most of us entered the foreign service, in part, drawn by the glamor and challenge of the work. It is easier to explain why we joined than why we stayed. Few stay in because of the lure of exotic places. There are more places like Abidjan than Paris in the world. The men and women in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam lived in comfortable homes and worked in stimulating environments. Beyond that, however, was the day-to-day living: the exhaustion of the grinding poverty, the scarcity of basic goods, the frustration of venal bureaucrats, the shock of filthy hospitals, the unrelenting threat that cars would be stolen at gunpoint or wallets lifted at knife-point or homes broken into by those who did not care that they were diplomats or Americans or anything else other than targets for their greed or desperation. No mere visitor to a foreign place can understand.
Visiting a place is not enough; it is the living there that teaches.
Do not misunderstand us, the diplomat's life is not a constant compost of privation and stress. The work is exciting, challenging, rewarding. It was for the two of us. It is work, at times, that makes a real difference. But it was also, at times, frightening and frustrating. We have lived through bloody armed coups. We have eaten holiday dinners far from family, in the dark in cities blacked-out by terrorist bombings. We have gone without milk and Christmas trees. We have stood at gravesides as they buried our friends.
There are currently somewhat less than 4,000 Americans serving in the United States diplomatic service in embassies all around the world. There are thousands more, citizens of the nations where the embassies are located, who support the work of the State Department overseas. Our friends and colleagues in the foreign service are your neighbors. They are black and white, old and young, female and male. They come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. They undergo a rigorous selection process, designed in part to identify a representative cross-section of America. They are the face of the United States of America overseas.
The State Department and those who will investigate the heinous crime of Aug. 7 will learn those lessons that can be learned from the tragedy of Kenya and Tanzania. For those of us who left the State Department, alive, whole, and for those of us who live in the relative security of this nation, there are different lessons to be learned:
- In most nations of the world it still means something to be an American. In many parts of the world, it means being a target of those whose lives are defined by their hatred.
- An attack on a United States Embassy is, in essence, an attack on the United States; on the values and principles for which thousands have died.
- Our detractors abroad and our apologists at home, those who accuse the United States of being too arrogant, too jingoistic, too eager to export our values; those who paint America with black do so because it is the only color that will cover the glorious rainbow of colors that is the true America.
- There are things worth dying for.
Our friends in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the Americans and the foreign service nationals who worked in those two embassies, know the truth that it is worth the risk to labor in a profession where the risk of death never abates. It is worth it because for all her faults, the things America stands for remain a beacon on a hill. At dark times like this, that beacon never shines brighter.