Tarek Mehanna Is an Angry Man

This is a few months old now, but the point is still relevant — and will remain so for the foreseeable future. I wrote this for an application to an internship program abroad and had to keep within their word count. I would have liked to go into more detail, however, and may do so in the future.


ImageTarek Mehanna is an angry man. In 2004, then aged 21, he flew to Yemen in what US Attorney Carmen Ortiz has described as an attempt to pursue training for militant actions against US interests. Unable to find what he was looking for, however, he returned home to the United States to work independently on behalf of Al Qaida. Mr. Mehanna spent the next several years as a propagandist for a Muslim holy war against the US military and in doing so provided material support for the terrorists he so admired.

That is the narrative that the prosecution presented to the jurors in Mr. Mehanna’s trial in US District Court in Boston (the trial, coincidentally, began on October 27, 2011 while the ATA’s 52nd annual conference was in full swing less than two miles away). In fact the prosecution was so convincing that the jury chose to convict him of all seven of his charges: three for lying to federal agents and four relating more directly to terrorism. And what were those terrorist activities? Translating and editing documents and videos and then posting them online.

Before this case, I had never heard of a conviction for unlawful translation in the United States. Now, having done some basic research, I know why: it seems that it has rarely – if ever – happened in this country. But that is not to say that this case is entirely unprecedented. In its 2010 decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Supreme Court found that the Patriot Act’s prohibition of “material support” for groups identified as terrorist organizations is, in fact, constitutional. In that case, the defendant, the Humanitarian Law Project, had attempted to teach peaceful conflict resolution methods to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. In its mission statement, the HLP describes itself as “a non-profit organization founded in 1985, dedicated to protecting human rights and promoting the peaceful resolution of conflict by using established international human rights laws and humanitarian law.” They sound about as interested in supporting terrorism as they are in do-it-yourself lobotomies. Nonetheless, the Roberts Court decided that providing non-violent aid (in this case legal advice regarding ways to settle their disputes through the international court system) to groups designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department does not infringe upon the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts claimed that, “the [‘material support’] statute is carefully drawn to cover only a narrow category of speech to, under the direction of, or in coordination with foreign groups that the speaker knows to be terrorist organizations.” This was a 6-3 decision and it made the Court’s view clear: even immaterial support can still qualify as “material support.”

Which leads us back to Mr. Mehanna. He made an impassioned and widely distributed statement before being sentenced, citing Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela as role models and explaining that he acted for the sake of, “Muslims who were defending themselves against American soldiers doing to them exactly what the British did to America [before and during the American Revolution].” He specified that he, “made crystal clear at trial that I never, ever plotted to ‘kill Americans’ at shopping malls or whatever the story was.” He is, in fact, angry about and quite hostile toward actions that the US Government has taken over the past decade. But unlike the Humanitarian Law Project case, the prosecution never even tried to argue that the defendant was working with a terrorist organization. They didn’t accuse him of violent acts or even of dealing in documents that were “intended or likely to incite imminent lawless action,” the standard for written speech since the late 1960s. They didn’t even accuse him of strictly translating documents that were previously unavailable in English: his version of 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, a document with some admittedly fraught points, is one of dozens that are available online, mostly on academic and archival sites. In his case, the prosecution merely argued that he was sympathetic to a terrorist organization and that he was providing Al Qaida with “material support” even without meeting the Supreme Court’s Humanitarian Law Project standard of “speech to, under the direction of, or in coordination with foreign groups that the speaker knows to be terrorist organizations.” In short, he was to be punished for translating unpopular documents while simultaneously holding unpopular opinions.

As I have become more involved with the profession of translation and had more and more opportunities to have personal conversations with other translators over the past few years, I have been impressed by how often the discussion turns toward professional ethics. When I was certified by the ATA last year, the first thing that I was required to do was read and agree to its internal Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. I have been asked to fill out online surveys regarding what sort of clientele I would consider off-limits for ethical reasons. I have also had personal conversations that have led me to conclude that we, as a profession, give a great deal of personal consideration to how our work impacts on the world around us. But one thing that has never come up, probably because it is considered self-evident, is that while some of us may make personal moral choices not to work in one industry or another, that choice is still ours to make. The oil and tobacco industries immediately come to mind as having been subjects of ethical discussions among translators, but to my knowledge there is not yet any recognizable call to prohibit work in those industries altogether or to punish translators who work with them. I have never heard anyone say that this or that kind of client is off-limits to translators across the board. Not until now, that is.

On April 12 of this year, US District Court Judge George O’Toole sentenced Tarek Mehanna to 17½ years in federal prison. I am not in a position to comment on his other charges, but to the extent that his sentence or even his conviction stem from his translation and editing activities, this is extremely unsettling.