In the West, a growing list of attacks linked to what?

Linked to “Islamic Extremism” says the headline in the New York Times.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Martin Rouleau-Couture, Alton Nolen, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, Mehdi Nemmouche, Michael Adebolajo, Mohammed Merah, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad — all Muslims in the West, all involved in deadly attacks, all linked to Islamic extremism. The link is surely clear-cut, right?

And now comes the latest on the list:

New York Daily News reports: A man armed with a hatchet who attacked a group of rookie cops on a Queens street, critically injuring one, was shot dead by the officers on Thursday afternoon, and a female bystander was hit by an errant round.

Police are investigating the possibility that the attacker killed on a rainswept shopping corridor, identified by police sources as Zale Thompson, 32, had links to terrorism. A Zale Thompson on Facebook is pictured wearing a keffiyeh and had a recent terrorism-related conversation with one of his Facebook friends, according to a police source.

Radio Free America and the New York Daily News, please take note: The man in the photo above is not Zale Thompson and he’s not wearing a keffiyeh.

The photo is of a Tuareg Berber warrior and was taken somewhere in the Sahara in the nineteenth century. His head garment is called a tagelmust which provides essential protection for those living in a region subject to frequent sand storms. The Arabic text is the Sūrat al-Fātiḥah, the first chapter of the Quran.

CNN reports: Authorities are looking to see if the unprovoked attack, in the New York borough of Queens, is tied to recent calls by radicals to attack military and police officers, law enforcement officials say.

Asked about a possible connection to terrorism, Bratton said, “There is nothing we know as of this time that would indicate that were the case. I think certainly the heightened concern is relative to that type of assault based on what just happened in Canada.”

On Wednesday, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed as he stood guard at Canada’s National War Memorial before shots erupted in the halls of the country’s Parliament minutes later.

The Ottawa gunman had “connections” to jihadists in Canada who shared a radical Islamist ideology, including at least one who went overseas to fight in Syria, multiple U.S. sources told CNN on Thursday.

Connections, ties, links — human beings have an insatiable need to try and understand how things fit together; how to discern coherence when confronted by chaos. This drive is at the core of the creative impulse. Without it there would be no science or art.

At the same time, discovery is more popular than exploration. Most people would rather have answers than be left with questions.

When with disturbing frequency on the relatively peaceful streets of Western cities, men identified as Muslims who appear to be acting alone, attack soldiers and police officers, it’s hard to avoid seeing these acts of brutality all being connected. But there are multiple problems in jumping to this conclusion.

Firstly, in attempting to identify a trend there is always the risk that the imputed trend is actually a function of the act of labeling. The trend might be more of a construction than a discovery.

How many isolated incidents need to occur before they are seen as connected? That determination is subjective, often arbitrary and can easily be affected by whatever happen to be the competing news stories of the day.

Consider for instance something that threatens the lives of all Americans — a threat far greater than that posed by terrorism.

Physicians for Social Responsibility note: “About 6% of cancer deaths per year — 34,000 deaths annually — are directly linked to occupational and environmental exposures to known, specific carcinogens.”

Yet when legal efforts are made to hold the manufacturers of those carcinogens responsible for any of those deaths, the legal process most often leans in favor of commercial interests. Epidemiologists have to painstakingly document all the evidence that clusters of cancer cases can indeed be linked to an industrial polluter before courts are persuaded that the connection is irrefutable and criminal responsibility has been proved.

Some connections are scientifically established years before they become legally accepted.

It’s one thing for an individual to be tied to Islamic extremism because they are in direct communication with members of organizations such as ISIS or al Qaeda, but what if they are merely inspired by such groups?

If the ties have been formed and sustained purely through social media, mainstream media, and the popular obsessions of a particular era, then for the individuals listed above, their links to Twitter and Fox News, for instance, played just as instrumental role in their radicalization as the ideology to which their actions are being ascribed.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that the media is attached to one narrative — a narrative that sells well because it exploits popular xenophobic fears — another link that might be even more important than ideology is the psychology of conversion.

Most of these men converted to Islam and religious conversions of any kind are fraught with psychological risks.

The convert invariably has a much deeper personal investment in the object of their faith than someone for whom their religion was simply a dimension of their upbringing. The convert is always more self-conscious about their religious identity.

This might make the convert more devout, but often it also unleashes a vindictive self-righteousness. A fractured ego can be empowered by an acquired religious authority that purges self-doubt and provides a zealous sense of purpose. Those who once felt downtrodden and demeaned may decide that they are going to teach the world to show them respect after having concluded that with their new-found faith they have God on their side.

This says much more about the psycho-dynamics of conversion than it says anything about the nature of Islam.

That Zale Thompson, having been kicked out of the U.S. Navy, chose the image of an African warrior as his avatar on Facebook, probably says more about his experiences as an African-American and a desire to identify with men who once conquered Spain rather than those who were once enslaved, than it says about the extent of ISIS’s influence.

Even though 9/11 taught about the importance of “connecting the dots,” it’s equally important not to connect too many dots or the wrong dots.

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