Cliff May

Perhaps because St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, I’ve found myself re-reading Edmund Burke and Conor Cruise O’Brien — and drinking Irish whiskey. I first became acquainted with these three sources of stimulation back in 1978. That was also my first brush with terrorism.

I was a young foreign correspondent sent to Northern Ireland to cover the “Troubles,” the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Republicans (Irish nationalists) and Loyalists (those favoring solidarity with the United Kingdom) that broke out in the 1960s and dissipated just before the turn of the century.

I spent many hours in pubs, listening to those on both sides of the divide tell me what they believed, whom they despised, and what acts of violence they would countenance — and in some cases carry out — to achieve their objectives.

In Ireland I also developed a habit I’ve since kept of reading the important writers of every country I visit — as well as partaking of local libations. Burke, of course, was a great 18th-century Irish author, statesman, and political philosopher. An enthusiastic supporter of the American Revolution, he saw early on that the revolution in France was heading into darkness, including la Terreur — mass executions of “enemies of the revolution.”

The following year, 1979, I was sent to Iran to cover the Islamic Revolution. I don’t doubt that Burke influenced me. While most journalists and diplomats regarded the regime that replaced the Shah as progressive, I saw ample evidence that the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were dangerous fanatics. (One small but significant data point: a memo, slipped under my hotel-room door on March 27, 1979, asking me and other guests for our “kind cooperation, in not using even your own alcoholic beverages, since the Management would be in serious trouble if not keeping to the rules and the Hotel Inter-Continental Tehran could not be hold [sic] responsible for any unpleasant occurrence toward our guests. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.”)

Attributed to Burke is the observation that for evil to survive, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing. Today, I’m afraid, in too many instances, passivity would be an improvement.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.