BROOKE GLADSTONE: On September 11th, 2012, gunmen attacked two American compounds in Benghazi, Libya. If you pay any attention to the news, you’ve probably heard that story. Well, you’ve probably heard some version of it, anyway. News reports constantly referred to the four Americans who died there, but you don't hear much about who those people were. They often get described almost as an aside, with the same seven words.
CORRESPONDENT: Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
CORRESPONDENT: Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
CORRESPONDENT: US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in that attack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the Media’s Alex Goldman has the story of one of the men whose name you probably don’t know.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Information Management Officer Sean Smith. In Benghazi, Sean’s job was to make sure the electronics that American diplomats relied on worked. But, of course, that’s not all he was. In his life outside of the State Department, Sean was a husband and father to two kids. But in order to really understand Sean Smith, you have to understand the online world which he inhabited. One of Sean’s best friends explains.
ALEX GIANTURCO: My name is Alex Gianturco, and I guess for the purposes of this interview you’re interested in my space identity, which is - I’m the Mittani in a silly little online game called EVE Online.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Calling EVE Online “little” is a misnomer. While it may look like a simple outer space shoot-em-up, even by normal online gaming standards, EVE is sprawling and incredibly complex.
ALEX GIANTURCO: What makes it unique, compared to other online games that many people play, is most games have small servers, so you’ll be playing a game with, you know, maybe fifty people, maybe a hundred people, maybe a thousand people.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In EVE, there’s a half million users who can interact with each other at the same time, which gets complicated. What’s emerged in EVE over time are player hierarchies called alliances that, when run successfully, resemble real world governments and control territory within the game. Like real governments, they broker and maintain peace between factions. They also steal, lie and spy on each other.
ALEX GIANTURCO: You know, in other games that’s, that’s against the rules. EVE Online is more of like Somalia in space on the internet, where there’s no rule of law; it’s just whatever goes.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alex actually quit a job in corporate law a couple of years ago and now makes a living from his gaming blog, which primarily chronicles the goings-on in the EVE universe. Alex is so ensconced in the governance of his alliance that he doesn’t even touch the space-shooting aspect of the game.
ALEX GIANTURCO: Most of what I end up doing is managing things, such that it’s more fun for our line members to actually play the game itself.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In the real world, Sean was working to aid the government in the midst of touchy, sometimes dangerous diplomatic quagmires. In the online world, Sean was Vile Rat, one of the EVE’s most influential diplomats.
ALEX GIANTURCO: Sean was not just some guy in EVE Online. He was the chief diplomat of the largest alliance in the game. He also created a diplomatic corps which was based on the state department itself and how they handle things. So now, instead of having one diplomat, which is what most alliances have, we had a chief diplomat, we had several diplomatic directors and we had attaches who were liaising with the various entities that they were focused on.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alex and Sean both got into EVE around 2006, through a website called Something Awful which, among many other things, plays host to a huge EVE Online alliance called Goonswarm.
ALEX GIANTURCO: I founded a espionage agency in the game, and Sean was actually one of my first agents, infiltrating a hostile alliance. And we worked very, very closely together on that.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s important to note that when you infiltrate a hostile alliance in EVE, it’s not like you enter some combination of commands and bam, you’ve infiltrated it. You have to convince actual people to trust you. It requires persuasion, patience and creativity. Sean excelled naturally in these situations.
ALEX GIANTURCO: So one of the most significant things that he did was managing the diplomacy of Goonswarm during an event called the Great War. The Great War was a three-year-long conflict that wracked all of EVE. We’re talking about a internet spaceship war here that had about 50,000 players on each side trying to kill each other for three years.
ALEX GOLDMAN: During the Great War, the Goonswarm were young upstarts being knocked around by a much larger alliance called the Band of Brothers, who had partnered with a smaller group called the Mercenary Coalition. It was a rough battle. Goonswarm was outclassed and outgunned. So Sean took a different tack.
ALEX GIANTURCO: Sean just started talking to their leadership. And over the course of several months of just highlighting the fact that their masters had taken credit for their actions and basically pointed out to the entire game how the Mercenary Coalition weren’t really mercenaries, Sean convinced them that they should actually try to stand on their own as an independent entity and actually live up to their name.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It worked. The Mercenary Coalition declared its independence, the Band of Brothers wiped them out as retribution and then the Goonswarm stepped in.
ALEX GIANTURCO: He managed to get this foe of ours to essentially destroy a large section of their strength, and then within about six months the Great War was over because without Mercenary coalition backing them up this entity was - thoroughly destroyed. You’re talking about entire regions and sections of space that are changing hands because of stuff that Sean had a part in.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In the real world, Sean’s job at the state department meant he was frequently in real war zones. He couldn't’ discuss the details of his work with his friends in Goonswarm, but they knew he wasn’t always safe.
ALEX GIANTURCO: There was this period of time when Sean was deployed when the uprising in Sadr City was taking place, and so we would be sitting there chatting on the internet during the day and he’d say something like [BLEEP] air raid siren, and he’d go off because they were getting shelled by these Katyushas from Sadr City. So our conversations would periodically be interrupted by getting rockets dropped on him, which was never very much fun. But that’s part of the job. The last communication that we had from him was, unfortunately, him saying [BLEEP] gunfire. And then, you know, that was when the compound was hit, and we never heard from him again.
ALEX GOLDMAN: His friends were used to seeing him go dark. But when Vile Rat didn’t pop back up for a disconcerting period of time, the Goonswarm began to investigate. One of Alex’s friends contacted Sean’s family and found out that he’d been killed. Alex, grieving, posted a tribute to Sean on his website, not realizing that he was inadvertently breaking the news of Sean’s death to the world.
ALEX GIANTURCO: Well, one of the worst things about having one of your - you know – you know, Sean was one of my best friends and, you know, we hung out many, many times in real life, in addition to spending every day on the internet with each other for six plus years before he was killed. So we’re trying to grieve through that and then dealing with the media. Pretty much every major entity in the western world contacted me, trying to interview me but really, what they were trying to do is trying to, you know, get in touch with “a crying widow,” which is what the media typically enjoys putting on when somebody has been tragically killed. So I sort of ran interference for a while. And, you know, obviously, the family had no desire to be contacted or discuss this with the press at all.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In a contentious presidential election season, Sean’s death became just another issue to fight over. In the world of EVE Online, Vile Rat’s death brought warring factions together.
ALEX GIANTURCO: Everyone was in shock. But it was heartwarming to see everyone come together, in a game where people are typically very hostile to other groups.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Space stations in the game were renamed in Vile Rat’s honor. People built memorials, signs that stretched across space that read “RIP Vile Rat,” and they met up in-game to talk about their friend.
“AMANO KAGE”: This is AmanoKage. I just want to send my heart out to all of those who are affected, the friends and families of those who were murdered. It’s a – it’s never a good day when a good man goes down. See you among the stars, tough guy.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Goonswarm, Sean’s alliance, all got together and shot each other as tribute.
ALEX GIANTURCO: You know, the, the old joke in EVE would be “shoot blues and then tell Vile Rat,” blues being somebody who was friendly to you. Vile Rat was the diplomat, so if you shot a blue, you would then go have to tell Vile Rat and sort it out. We got together a whole bunch of people on our side and we just sort of blew each other up as a tribute –
- sort of a mem - memorial free-for-all op.
ALEX GOLDMAN: What did you personally learn from playing with him?
ALEX GIANTURCO: Oh I learned many things. [LAUGHS] That would take – [LAUGHING]. That - that would take up a lot more than I can tell you in, in just one interview. I, I learned a lot about reserve, about judgment, about how to interact with people. I watched him take enemies and turn them into friends, which is something that a lot of people don’t realize is even possible. You think somebody doesn’t like you and then you just don’t even make any effort. And Sean taught me that the effort is almost always worth it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you see conflicts unfold in the game now where you think to yourself, “I, I wish Sean were here. He would have handled this in a way that I couldn’t have conceived of”?
ALEX GIANTURCO: Every [BLEEP] day. I mean, he was my right hand man so, yes, every single day.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Today, and every day for months or years to come, people are going to be posting image macros and links all over Facebook and Twitter, telling us to never forget the Ambassador Chris Stevens and “three other Americans.” And somewhere, floating deep in the New Eden star system, will be countless space stations and monuments to one of its most important figures. In EVE, no one will ever forget Vile Rat.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This story originally appeared on our great TLDR podcast. You can hear more stories by going to tldronthemedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer and Meera Sharma. We had more help from Kimmie Regler. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.