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In the days that followed the death of Muammer Gaddafi, many New Yorkers turned their attention to an unlikely question: why was there a kid in a Yankee hat at the scene?

The young man of whom I speak was photographed in the vicinity of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, brandishing a gold-plated pistol that was supposedly liberated from the Libyan leader around the time of his death and sporting a cap bearing the logo of the New York baseball club that plays in the Bronx.

It was the kind of picture that couldn’t help but capture an American’s eye. It’s always comforting to find bits of home in faraway places, and the Yankee hat is as iconic an item of clothing as exists in our country.

But making sense of that Yankee hat in that Libyan locale has proved tricky for people in these parts – the results have verged on the comical – and I would suggest that is worth noting. The local deconstruction of the Libyan leader’s death has more than a little in common with the way Americans have reacted to other news from the Middle East this year as the Arab spring has given way to summer and the fall of Gaddafi. We can’t help but notice the familiar elements of the drama. But our grasp of the plot is less certain.

The young man in the baseball cap found himself at the forefront of our local conversation thanks to the New York Post, which ran a front-page headline proclaiming “KHADAFY KILLED BY YANKEE FAN”. As evidence that this particular young man was the shooter who had “heroically erased” the “vile dictator”, the Post cited “Arab media”, always a respected source at the News Corp tabloid.

There was undoubtedly a bit of wish fulfilment in the Post’s coverage. Speaking as a listener to sports radio, I would argue that many Yankee fans were more than ready to kill Gaddafi – or someone similar. It would, after all, have given them something to do in October following their team’s earlier-than-expected departure from this year’s baseball play-offs. The Post hinted at this element of the story by saying in a subhead that the “gunman had more hits than A-Rod”, referring to Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee who is so overpaid these days that he deserves a visit from those folks at Occupy Wall Street.

Controversy quickly followed in the wake of the Post report because the main piece of evidence it presented to support its assertion that the Libyan was an actual Yankee fan was the hat itself. More sober journalistic operations such as The Atlantic, The New York Times and National Public Radio responded, noting that it was unlikely that any Libyan knew much about baseball in general or the Yankees in particular (such was the state of Libya’s underdevelopment under Gaddafi!).

Complicating matters further is that even in New York it’s hard to know exactly why people are wearing Yankee caps nowadays. That hat is no longer just a symbol of baseball; it has hip-hop meaning as well. Shawn Carter, the Brooklyn rapper otherwise known as Jay-Z, is frequently photographed in Yankees headgear, and he boasted on his smash hit “Empire State of Mind”: “I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.”

This opens up the possibility that the Libyan fighter with the Yankee hat wasn’t inspired by the Bronx Bombers at all, but by Mr Carter, who is not unknown to Libyans (according to press reports, Jay-Z was among the guests at a party on the Caribbean island of St Barts where his wife, Beyoncé Knowles, sang for Gaddafi-family members).

For my money, though, the more likely explanation probably involves any of the more prosaic factors that influence the distribution of cheap textiles or relief supplies. A very helpful New York Daily News story, for example, pointed out that a US charity called World Vision sends unwanted shirts and caps from US professional sports leagues to countries where clothing is scarce.

World Vision’s work is rich in irony for anyone with a taste for metaphor. Its supplies often come from teams that lose championship games and give away the gear made in case they had won. As a result, well-meaning Americans express their love for humanity by dressing the world’s poor in the incorrectly characterised clothing of losers.

It’s possible that a Yankee hat on that Libyan head was just another piece of surplus. Just as Freudians understand that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, commentators on global affairs have to face the fact that sometimes a hat is just a hat. There’s a lot of sun in Libya.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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