Diplomats, armed with handshakes and briefcases, face uncertainty abroad
5:50 PM, Sep 12, 2012   |  
Written by
Robert Marchant

 JOURNAL NEWS (Westchester, NY)

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In this photo taken Monday, April 11, 2011, then U.S. envoy Chris Stevens takes a coffee before attending meetings at the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya. Libyan officials say the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans have been killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) / AP

They carry briefcases, not weapons, and seek to make peace, not war. But dangers from terrorism and other hazards can make the job that diplomats, United Nations personnel, Peace Corps volunteers and other foreign affairs professionals a dangerous one.

Ambassador Chris Stevens, a former Peace Corps volunteer, died in an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya on Tuesday, along with three other Americans, and news of his death caused concern and sorrow in a region that is home to many diplomats and foreign-affairs advisers. It appears Stevens died while attempting to organize an evacuation of the compound, according to initial reports from Congressional and military leaders.

“They go into these countries with a handshake, not a gun,” noted John Coyne, a Peace Corps veteran from Pelham Manor, speaking of Stevens’ background in the Peace Corps and the diplomatic service. “What struck me was that he was going into the building to rescue people. You go to where the problem is, that’s a typical Peace Corps reaction, that’s what he was doing,” said Coyne, who runs a website for Peace Corps veterans.

Speaking of those who have gone abroad to serve, and the recent deaths in Libya, Coyne said, “We’re a tight community. There’s a connecting chord there. It’s a little more personal and tragic.”

There are numerous diplomatic missions around the Lower Hudson Valley, as well as other international organizations in the region, and many embassy staffers and U.N personnel live in the area.

Stevens was called an admirable model of what a diplomat can be.

“I share a great deal of pride and sadness, at all he accomplished, and that he had to pay the ultimate price,” said Richard Olver, a foreign-affairs consultant from Croton-on-Hudson who lived in Libya and other locations in Africa while serving with the U.N.

Everyone who serves overseas, in civilian attire or not, knows there are hazards, said Olver.

“Today, with the world polarized with two different ideas of civilization, it’s always a risk. I don’t think the risks are terribly great, but they do exist, and many of my colleagues have been killed or injured because of these very risks,” he said, “Since 1990 or so, when al-Qaida decided that the UN symbolized the secular, liberal, Western society it opposed, at least a dozen of my colleagues have been killed or maimed in terrorist attacks. … Security is always an issue, but I’ve never allowed it to run my life.” He can recall being told by intelligence officials while stationed in Sierra Leone that a team of assassins, evidently from Libya, was in the country looking to kill high-profile Americans.

Recent years have seen a number of tragedies involving diplomats, including several from the region. Hedi Annabi, the head of the U.N. mission to Haiti, and his chief deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa both were killed in the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Annabi, 65, lived in Cortlandt, and Da Costa, 60, had relocated from Pocantico Hills to Ossining at the time of his death.

At Da Costa’s funeral in Sleepy Hollow, he was eulogized as man who saw a better world, one that could be transformed “little by little, step by step, person by person.”