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Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, in a file photo.

ANIS MILI/REUTERS

The diplomat's life can be a dangerous one, in some regions of the world. The murder by an armed mob in Benghazi of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his colleagues, like the killing by car bomb of the Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry in Afghanistan in 2006, shows why envoys often need great courage to do their jobs.

Diplomatic immunity is a fragile doctrine in some failed or failing states; the 16th-century English witticism that an ambassador is someone who "lies abroad for his country" is utterly inadequate to the challenges in Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Mr. Stevens knew the country and knew the risks. During the rule of Moammar Gadhafi, he had been deputy chief of mission and later the chargé d'affaires. In 2011, he returned in the midst of the civil war and became the envoy to the Libyan Transitional Council: in other words, to the rebels who more or less turned into the new government.

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In recent months, political developments had been encouraging. Mr. Stevens expressed pleasant surprise at the rather poor results for the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections in July. But the weakness of the Libyan armed forces and police was evident. The attack on the U.S. consulate on Tuesday showed, horrifically, the lack of security in Libyan cities.

In this near-anarchy, Libyan Muslims themselves are being persecuted by religious extremists who have been destroying shrines, alleging that the veneration of deceased Muslim saints is a pagan practice.

At the same time, even some establishment figures in the region do not seem to understand that there is freedom of speech in the United States. Hesham Kandil, the Egyptian Prime Minister, has called upon the U.S. government to prosecute the producers of the offensive film Innocence of Muslims, which occasioned the current violence, including the killing of Mr. Stevens. President Mohamed Morsi himself has instructed his embassy to take legal action in the United States against the filmmakers.

Brave people from the developed world, such as Christopher Stevens, will continue to work for progress in countries that are unstable or ruled despotically, but his violent death is a sobering reminder of the wide gap between functioning democracies and countries that have little or no experience of political freedom.

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