Ignorance meets intolerance in a tragedy in Benghazi

Men never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

That famous epigram was found in the notes left by the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who was preparing a defense of the Christian faith when he died in 1662. The evils wrought by Hitler and Stalin belie it. What happened in Libya on Tuesday suggests it still holds some truth.

Angered by a scurrilous video mocking the Prophet Muhammad, apparently filmed with the support of right-wing Christians, Libyan Muslims attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Among them, and perhaps inciting them, was a squad of well-armed Islamist militants. Four U.S. diplomats were killed, among them Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

The protests quickly spread to Egypt, where the U.S. Embassy was overrun, but without casualties. On Wednesday the protests spread to Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq and Iran. The Quran, while not explicitly forbidding visual depictions of Muhammad, makes it clear that his name and image are to be honored. Some supplemental teachings are stricter, and in some Muslim sects, the faithful rise up in what they see as righteous anger.

Which is, of course, what some Christianist sects in this country do in opposition to the Muslim faith. Christians and Muslims have been killing each other in God's name since the 7th century. Reason does not signify.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked an important question Wednesday morning in eulogizing Mr. Stevens: “Today, many Americans are asking — indeed, I asked myself — how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.”

Many people don't do well with complicated and confounding issues. The ill-educated youth of some Islamic nations prefer simple fervor. Many of the supposedly better-educated citizens in the Western world, who have less excuse, prefer simple answers, too, even if they're wrong.

What is inexcusable, however, is that a sophisticated, well-educated man like Mitt Romney — a Mormon who has known the ugliness of religious intolerance — would to try to politicize this tragedy. His vile charge Tuesday night that the Obama administration had “sympathized” with the embassy attackers was not only untrue, but violated the cardinal rule that in times of foreign strife, politics stops at the water's edge.

If an incident like the Benghazi attack can so befuddle him, what would he do in a larger crisis?

In days to come, President Barack Obama, who vowed Tuesday to work with the Libyan government to bring “justice” to those responsible for the deaths of Mr. Stevens and his colleagues, will have some complicated, perhaps confounding, decisions to make.

The United States long has reserved the right to levy a “proportional response” to attacks on U.S. interests. With the advent of unmanned attack planes, Mr. Obama has options that were unavailable to his 43 predecessors. He doesn't have to send Marines to the shores of Tripoli.

When someone in Libya identifies the killers — and someone will — Mr. Obama will have to decide whether to kill them or let Libya deal with them. The first option will play better at home; the second may be better for long-term U.S. interests in the Arab world. Actions have consequences. So do elections.