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Cultural Analysis of a Threat Communique

NCJ Number
Crime & Justice International Volume: 19 Issue: 76 Dated: September/October 2003 Pages: 33-37
Mitchell R. Hammer
Date Published
September 2003
5 pages
This article details the criteria and the conclusions of the author's analysis of a threat letter written in English but purporting by the letter's author to be from an Arab Muslim.
The letter was sent on October 16, 1990, and received by military attaches in Washington, DC, through the embassies of Italy, Australia, Great Britain, and Canada. The author of this article was asked to determine whether the letter was written in an Arab cultural style or in a style that reflected an attempt to appear as an Arab terrorist. Two fundamental criteria were adopted for analyzing the document. First, the language translation criterion concerns the degree to which typical errors in writing made by the author represented typical errors native Arabic speakers make when working from the Arabic to the English language. This criterion is based on the fact that identifiable, culture-specific patterns of language translation emerge as individuals attempt to speak or write in a second language while using their primary language system as a reference. Finding Arabic-to-English language translation errors might suggest that the writer is a native Arabic language speaker; however, not finding these translation errors only means that the writer's command of English is sufficient not to make these errors. Second, the deeper cultural pattern criterion involves an identification of unconscious stylistic devices used in writing and speaking that likely indicate the cultural background of the writer. Evidence of these devices in the threat letter was an accurate indicator of the writer's cultural background or nationality. Using these criteria in analyzing the letter, the analyst concluded that the writer was an American male in his 50's. Authorities subsequently apprehended the writer, who proved to be an American White male in his 50's living in the United States. 8 notes