Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Yelling, “Fire!” in a Crowded Theater

Sean Smith, killed alongside the U.S. Ambassador and two others in the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Lybia, was the IT guy for the embassy.  Plus.   His official job title was Foreign Service Information Management Specialist, a job modernized from the one I held in Cairo, Egypt, and elsewhere 35 years ago in dinosaur days of communications speeds of 100 words per minute by clankity-clank-clanking teletype, replacement of which by the State Department introduced me to my first computer workstation.  I beg some indulgence if I can not help but shiver at an unexpected recognition of a secret handshake.

Sean Smith, killed in Libya on September 12, 2012.  Facebook memorial page photo posted by Owe Jørgensen.

For Sean and his contemporaries the job description currently posted on the U.S. Department of State website reads:


Summary: support and manage a world-wide telecommunications network, computer networks, telephone, radio, and Diplomatic Pouch and Mail.

Major Duties   

--Install, operate, and maintain hardware and software applications.
--Administer and operate telecommunications network equipment, including cryptographic equipment, multiplexers, modems, routers, switches, and satellite equipment.
--Administer telephone and wireless programs..
--Administer Diplomatic Pouch and conduct exchange with Diplomatic Couriers
--Additional duties as required.

Educational Requirements: appropriate combination of degrees, certification, training, and work experience.

Qualifications: Superior Oral and Written Communication Skills:  (Even for technical personnel.  Maybe this is due to dependency on reports written half a world away.  Maybe just the high standards set by the first U.S. Foreign Service employees, who included Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.)

Narrative autobiography and Supplementary Questionnaire required: discuss personal background, interests, hobbies, and travel, professional experience, and motivation for applying for a Foreign Service Information Management Specialist career. 

“Successful applicants must consistently meet a high standard for English, both written and spoken. Those who fall short of this standard will have little chance of passing through the Foreign Service’s highly competitive assessment process.”

Some things do not change.  My first month in Cairo, riots erupted to protest price increases by pennies on basic foods and the butane gas to cook it with.  A mob attacked the car in which I was riding.  My boss was driving the car, a huge hunk of American steel and V-8 horsepower. We rode out the front gate of the embassy, past the Shepheards Hotel, and down the Corniche El Nil. At the first bridge, a crowd gathered. My boss stopped the car in the middle of the street a block away.  A veteran of Foreign Service assignments in Jakarta, Algiers, and Casablanca, this was not his first street riot.  He shifted the transmission into Neutral. The crowd advanced towards the car. Some carried rocks and lengths of iron pipes. Angry faces began to come into focus. My boss stomped on the accelerator with the engine still in Neutral. When the RPM needle pointed to 12 O’Clock High, he dropped the gear shift into Drive, screeching tires and raising a trail of blue smoke and the smell of rubber. He aimed at the middle of the mob. The accelerator pedal was still flat on the floor at 60 MPH.

Sean Smith, for relief from his Foreign Service duties, belonged to a worldwide community of about 400,000 known as EVE Online, a sci-fi role-playing game of intergalactic political intrigue.  Smith was a member of the Council of Stellar Management, the player-elected government, which held real meetings in Iceland, where his wife especially enjoyed visiting.  His EVE Online nom de plume was “Vile Rat.”  Smith was chatting with EVE Online friends immediately prior to the attack on the Benghazi consulate.  He signed off: CUL (see you later), “assuming we don't die tonight.”  In a memorial post, one EVE blogger remembered occasions previously when Sean Smith would duck out of chats due to incoming fire.  “If you play this stupid game, you may not realize it, but you play in a galaxy created in large part by Vile Rat’s talent as a diplomat,” the blog noted. More than 30 pages of Sean Smith memorial messages filled an official EVE forum.

“This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Andrews Air Force Base as four flag-draped caskets arrived.

“Sean Smith joined the State Department after six years in the Air Force. He was respected as an expert on technology by colleagues in Pretoria, Baghdad, Montreal, and The Hague,” according to Secretary of State Clinton.   Her public face on my television screen was puffy and set hard like a mother who had lost children.  There was not a dry eye in my house.  “Sean leaves behind a loving wife Heather, two young children, Samantha and Nathan, and scores of grieving family, friends, and colleagues,” Secretary Clinton added.

http://video.state.gov/en/video/1841326614001 Video

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