When former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker heard about his colleague's death in Libya, his first reaction was disbelief. He had known Christopher Stevens for two decades.
"I ... just felt that punch in the stomach. He was a good friend. We're a pretty small tribe," he tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.
The bodies of the four Americans killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, including Stevens', were received by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday.
After his initial shock, Crocker's thoughts turned to the country's loss.
"That we'd lost a truly great diplomat, and that the American people had lost a tremendous representative, and the Libyans a great friend," he says.
Stevens was sent to Libya when the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi began in 2011. He was based in Benghazi, acting as the U.S. envoy to the rebels. In May of last year, he was named ambassador to Libya.
Crocker most recently served as ambassador to Afghanistan, from 2011 to 2012 (he stepped down in July). Before that, he headed up embassies in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
As far as security goes, Crocker says, U.S. Marines can't protect all diplomats all the time.
"The reality is, while all of our embassies are protected by Marines, most of our consulates are not. We simply do not have enough Marine guards to go around," he says. "So even places in vulnerable zones, like Libya, the norm would be to have diplomatic security, which is U.S. and host-country protection."
The attack on the consulate in Benghazi was led by a mob, which Crocker says is particularly dangerous. "I've seen this up close and for real: One of the most terrifying and the most lethal and the hardest to defend against — Marines or no Marines — is a mob," Crocker says.
Yet, violence comes with the territory.
"The reality is we do business in dangerous areas. We can manage risk, but we can't prevent it if we do our jobs," he says.
The challenge for diplomats is balancing security with the need to reach out to the local people, interacting with them outside of fortressed walls.
"I've served my career in some pretty tough places. In three of those postings, a predecessor of mine as ambassador was assassinated," Crocker says. "That makes it all the more important — not less — to have a direct sense of what the mood is."
He says there are ways of working with security to minimize risk while maximizing face time, like making spontaneous visits to public places, rather than planned ones.
Still, diplomats will always face risk, including death. He says the attack in Libya has raised these issues in Americans' consciousness.
"So out of the enormous tragedy of Chris' loss, I hope my colleagues will take some heart in that his death has brought a better understanding and awareness of what America's foreign service does to keep the country safe, secure and to advance our interests."