Today I’d like to compare two prominent incidents of violence from the last month – the stabbing of two active-duty military personnel in North York, Ontario by Ayanle Hassan Ali and the shooting of eight people in Kalamazoo, Michigan by Uber driver Jason Brian Dalton – and look at how each of them was portrayed in the media. It shouldn’t be a surprise, given the names of the men involved, which of them got labelled a potential terrorist, but the comparison goes quite a bit deeper than it may appear at first glance.
In case you missed the story, Ali entered a Canadian Forces recruitment centre mid-afternoon on Monday, March 14, and (non-fatally) stabbed the person behind the counter. He then attempted to enter further into the centre, but was stopped by several soldiers, one of whom was (non-fatally) wounded. According to Toronto police chief Mark Saunders, Ali allegedly told the soldiers that “Allah told me to do this, Allah told me to come here and kill people”. He faces several charges in connection with this attack.
There’s been quite a bit of back-and-forth in the Toronto press over the past week about whether Ali’s attack on the military recruitment office constituted an act of terrorism. This past Tuesday, the Toronto Sun’s cover read “‘TERROR’. THERE, WE SAID IT”, and they leaned heavily on the notion that they were bravely defying a cadre of ultra-leftist social justice warriors which has somehow wrapped their commie tentacles around the public consciousness and coerced people into being terrified of calling Muslims terrorists:
Behold the politically correct as they fall over themselves to warn this latest attack was that of a wingnut, not a terrorist.
That those who think otherwise are guilty of anti-Islamist hysteria. That terrorism is the word that shall not be named.
It is their go-to, reflexive response to these, thankfully few, episodes of violence perpetuated by lone wolves; it is the very same reaction that met the murder on Parliament Hill, the very same reluctance to recognize the obvious.
The Sun also pooh-poohed any suggestion that Ali might be suffering from delusions:
And what of speculation that Ali may be mentally ill — the same excuse used to argue that Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s killer at the Cenotaph wasn’t a terrorist? Lawyer David Burke didn’t request a mental health assessment for his client, but did say that while Ali seemed “an intelligent-enough young man,” he could always ask for one at a later date.
They weren’t alone in using the “T” word – Saunders, while cautioning people not to be Islamophobic, also said that the force was looking into the possibility of terrorist connections, and our sainted Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, rather ambiguously said on Twitter that the Canadian Forces wouldn’t be intimidated by “terror and hate”.
But it’s not immediately clear what is meant by “terrorism” here. To date, no connections between Ali and any militant political organization has emerged. What differentiates these stabbings from other acts of violence?
To see this more clearly, let’s look at the case of Jason Dalton, the Kalamazoo shooter. In late February, Dalton, while driving for Uber, shot eight people over a seven-hour period, killing six of them. County prosecutor Jeffrey Getting readily conceded in the immediate aftermath of the shootings that he couldn’t immediately discern a motive for Dalton’s actions, but was quick to add that he was confident there was no connection to terrorism.
Upon closer examination, Dalton’s statement to police reveals a chilling parallel to the case of Ayanle Ali:
According to a police report released on Monday, Jason Brian Dalton, the Uber driver accused in the apparently random shooting spree that left six people dead in Kalamazoo, Michigan, last month, told officers that the Uber app on his phone was controlling him at the time of the spree.
When he opened the app, Dalton told police, a symbol would appear that “would literally take over your whole body,” Det. William Moorian of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety wrote in his report…
“Dalton then explains how when he opens up the Uber taxi app a symbol appeared and he recognized that symbol as the Eastern Star symbol. Dalton acknowledged that he recognized the Uber symbol as being that of the Eastern Star and a devil head popped up on his screen and when he pressed the button on the app, that is when all the problems started.”
According to Dalton, this “devil-figure” was directing his actions throughout the day. In other words, a powerful, deity-like force “compelled” him to engage in his spree of violence. Sound familiar?
But there is nobody – nobody! – accusing Dalton of being a Satanic terrorist. It’s pretty obvious that Dalton, rather than being a devil-worshipping terrorist determined to come after Our Freedoms, was in fact in the grips of a powerful delusion. That this delusion led to the deaths of six innocent people is tragic and terrible and a scathing indictment of the American approach to mental health. But these delusion-driven shootings were categorically not an act of terrorism.
Now, if Ayanle Hassan Ali literally believed that Allah had told him to go to the military recruitment centre and kill people, in what meaningful sense is that any different from Dalton’s belief that a devil-figure in the Uber app was telling him to drive around Kalamazoo shooting people?
What this episode reveals (yet again) is that there are a lot of people for whom the words “Islamic” and “terrorist” are inseparable. Acts of violence by Muslims, even when they can reasonably be attributed to other causes like mental illness, are chalked up to violent jihadism almost as a knee-jerk reaction.
And, to be clear, mentally ill people are as a group overwhelmingly not a danger to society, and are vastly more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to be the perpetrators of it. The extremely rare exceptions to this rule are often sensationalized in a way which paints all mentally ill folks as dangerous. In this sense, Muslims and the mentally ill have a lot in common – rare instances of shocking violence by members of each group are deployed by the prejudiced and the bigoted to stigmatize and demonize countless completely innocent people.
The difference, illustrated starkly by these two cases, is that that our society’s ultimate epithet, “terrorist”, is reserved pretty much exclusively for Muslims. Other acts of senseless and indiscriminate violence, when committed by non-Muslims, are quickly labelled “Not Terrorism” by cops, prosecutors, and politicians, whereas in cases like Ali’s, people like TPS chief Saunders gravely intone that we “can’t rule out” terror connections, notwithstanding the complete lack of any positive evidence indicating that his actions were part of any wider plot.
This language matters. The constant reinforcement of the mental connections between Islam and terrorism feeds into all-too-common anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry, and fuels hateful violence against Muslims. Far from being bravely iconoclastic, the Toronto Sun and its ilk, by making evidence-free proclamations that Ali’s attack was an act of terrorism, are helping to bolster the blatantly racist conventional wisdom that “terror” is a uniquely Islamic phenomenon.
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