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John Tirman

Published onApr 19, 2019
John Tirman

For a few years before I arrived at MIT in 2004, I corresponded with Noam Chomsky a little, mostly about our mutual interest in Turkey. We were connected through our common friend, Howard Zinn, but I had never met Noam. Shortly after taking up residence at the MIT Center for International Studies, a book I published in 1997, Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America’s Arms Trade, was translated into Turkish. Much of the book focused on the repression of Kurds in Turkey, Turkish nationalism, and the use of American armaments in the conflict. Noam and I spoke about these issues during our first meeting in his office in the Stata Center, and I was gratified that he occasionally cited my work on Turkey.

About a year later, the publisher of the Turkish edition of Spoils of War, Fatih Taş, notified me that he was being prosecuted in Istanbul for insulting the military, insulting Atatürk, and other such “crimes,” all because of my book. Soon after, two translators of the work were similarly charged. If found guilty, they all could go to prison for more than six years. I was aghast.

Others had suffered such a fate, mostly Turkish or Kurdish journalists. And someone else I knew had his translated book prosecuted—Noam Chomsky. Three years earlier, the same publisher was brought up on charges stemming from his Turkish edition of Chomsky’s essays on American intervention.

I didn’t know how to help Taş and his colleagues. I made the usual noises in op-eds, interviews, and the like, but Istanbul was far away and seemingly impervious to the tiny commotion I could make in the American news media. So I asked Noam.

“Go there and stand trial with Taş,” he replied. Huh? I thought. I’ve seen Midnight Express. But that’s exactly what Noam had done in his case. He went to Istanbul and petitioned the court to be a co-defendant. The prosecutor, in an unusually lucid moment, dropped all charges.

Needless to say, I’m not Noam Chomsky, and I could not count on the prosecutor’s fear of bad world publicity to treat me similarly. Finally, charges were dropped in my case (with the judge declaring, “We should not be prosecuting the publisher or translators, we should be prosecuting the author!”).

The episode taught me a lesson about Noam. For more than 50 years, he has been lauded for his strong moral stands on many global issues. But what I also saw was exceptional moral courage to assist one persecuted young man far away. He didn’t have to do it, but he did—and it speaks volumes.

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