Conor Cruise O’Brien: A forgotten article


One of my favorite National Review pieces was the cover article for the April 22, 1996 edition. It was “Liberalism and Terror” by the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died last Thursday, and the article was an outstanding example of insightful and intellectually vigorous writing. In his honor, I offer two paragraphs from “Liberalism and Terror.”

Liberalism and terrorism appear as opposing concepts. But they have something in common. Both belong to the large and heterogeneous family of the devotees of freedom. Freedom is the most powerful and the most ambiguous of abstract ideas. There are two main divisions within the massive ambiguities. There is freedom combined with order and limited by law. This is the freedom of England’s Glorious Revolution and of the American Constitution. This is the “manly, moral, regulated liberty” which Burke defended in Reflections on the Revolution in France. This is the freedom of the mainstream liberal tradition in the English-speaking world. And it is also the freedom of the mainstream conservative tradition in the same world. In their philosophy of freedom, the common ground between the two traditions is more important than the differences. Edmund Burke belongs to both those traditions, and no one should seek to wrest him from one of them in order to monopolize him for the other.

Outside the zone of ordered freedom, now more or less coextensive with the Western world, the idea of freedom and the love of freedom take starker and more elemental forms. Freedom is thought of as the appurtenance and rightful heritage of a particular group of people defined by nationality, religion, language, ancestry, or territorial affiliation, and usually by some combination of several of these elements. Some other group or groups of people are felt to be denying freedom to us, who must have it. Freedom so understood is one of the most powerful of human motivating forces and the most destructive, impelling large numbers of people to risk their lives for it and to take the lives of others, the enemies of freedom. Serbs and Croats cut one another’s throats, and all for freedom’s sake.

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