J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador killed in Libya, knew the risks of his chosen career. But the former Peace Corps volunteer – fluent on Arabic – was determined to repair U.S. relationships in the Middle East and spread the lessons of democracy, particularly in Libya after Moammar Gaddafi’s fall. President Obama said of Stevens, “His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice.”

An American flag flies at half staff outside the State Department September 12, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

Sean Smith, a 34-year-old Air Force veteran, had served in various U.S. missions over the past decade. Smith, a Foreign Service Information Management Officer, was a husband and father of two. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Like Chris, Sean was one of our best.”

Stevens, Smith and two other diplomats served their country under extremely dangerous circumstances; their lives needed to be celebrated and their deaths mourned. Instead, as the flags were being lowered to half-mast, it seemed, partisan political battles moved to the spotlight. Coinciding with the anniversary of a horrific terrorist attack that – for a moment – united Americans 11 years ago, murders at a U.S. embassy in Libya and attacks on one in Egypt triggered not clarity of purpose and resolve, but squabbling.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney broke his own pledge to refrain from letting politics intrude on the 9/11 commemoration and violated the traditional protocol against meddling in foreign policy during an international crisis, one that was a human tragedy as well.

Romney acted hastily when he saw an opportunity to blast the president for something he didn’t do (“sympathize” with murderers) because it fit a GOP campaign theme attacking the president for things he never said (offer “apology” to world leaders for America). Though Romney received some support, his statements were also met with criticism, some from his own party, and other, more reasonable words. His vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said, “This is a time for healing.”

Romney has been quite busy on the foreign policy stage. Will he again rush into U.S. policy with Israel, now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wrangling over U.S. engagement with Iran? While GOP campaign ads about Obama’s Medicare policy or position on welfare reform may be misleading, they won’t start a war. Ann Romney has called her husband the grown-up in the race. But it was Romney who looked the smirking child during a press conference on Wednesday, digging in his heels while brave Foreign Service staffers in embassies in the Middle East and around the world face danger still.

An early statement by the Cairo embassy staff – made when the protest was brewing -- had been criticized by Romney and disavowed by the White House. When I tried to put myself in the place of the threatened citizens representing the U.S. overseas, I thought that had I been in that place, I might also have looked harshly on incendiary film footage. Freedom of speech is a glorious American value; embassy staff can use that freedom to criticize deliberate provocation by someone who won’t have to pay an immediate price.

Was there a time when criticism of U.S. policy stopped at the water’s edge? I remember members of Congress — not divided by party labels – standing together on the steps of the Capitol singing “God Bless America,” taking time to mourn and heal and express the sentiment that we are all Americans. Yes, the government went after those responsible for 9/11, and ringleader Osama bin Laden was killed under the presidency of the man now accused of apologizing to and sympathizing with America’s enemies.

Now people without information or any personal stake don’t come together in crisis but jump in to fan the flames. Nearly forgotten is the work of those who do the dirty and necessary work in countries that see America as a beacon but are traveling a rough road toward achieving their own democratic dreams.

Is it worth it? Clinton emphasized that only a “small, savage group” was responsible for the Benghazi attack, not the Libyan government that denounced the murders. Those who knew Stevens said the last thing he would have wanted was withdrawal from commitment to a stable Middle East.

In this week’s fight over who best represents American values, my vote goes to Stevens, if anyone is listening.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3