St. Patrick’s Day with Edmund Burke
What Burke and Conor Cruise O’Brien can teach us about preventing the triumph of evil.

State of Edmund Burke at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland


Clifford D. 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.

Recent examples: basketball star Dennis Rodman visiting with and heaping praises upon North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, and actor Sean Penn and the Reverend Jesse Jackson mourning Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez, an ally of the Iranian regime — which did, indeed, turn out to be not just oppressive at home but also the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism abroad, and is even now illicitly developing nuclear weapons, the better to intimidate neighboring Arab states and threaten the single Jewish state with genocide.

During a visit to Tehran in July 2006, Chávez told a crowd that his country and Iran share a goal: to “put an end to the U.S. empire.” Chávez has said, too, that capitalism and imperialism may have ended life on Mars. In their discussions of his life and legacy, few mainstream media outlets thought this worth noting. But Saturday Night Live did — writer/performer Seth Meyers emphasized that this was no joke. Kudos to SNL for its superior news judgment.

Nicoloás Maduro, likely to be Venezuela’s next ruler, has accused the U.S. of murdering Chávez, apparently by infecting him with cancer. That slander seems not to have troubled Penn and Jackson, who were among those attending Chávez’s funeral in Caracas last week along with Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad.

Like all members of Iran’s ruling class, Ahmadinijad is a follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who as early as 1942 wrote that those “who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. . . . Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers.”