John Tirman, an MIT scholar in political theory and expert on US-Iran relations and human security, passed away on the morning of August 19 after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 72. Since 2004, Tirman served as the executive director of and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS). During this time, he was a prolific and thoughtful—but always modest—leader of many of the center’s initiatives. Read his MIT obituary here. The Center will be hosting a memorial at the MIT Chapel on Friday, November 4, at 9 AM. A reception will follow the service. Submit a tribute and also RSVP to the forthcoming memorial here.
“John was an exceptionally able and reliable partner in the leadership of CIS,” shares Richard Samuels, director of CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science. “Apart from managing a large swath of administrative responsibilities, he sustained a steady and prolific agenda of research and publishing. The center and the larger intellectual community benefited immeasurably from John’s commitment to explore the intersection of human security and international affairs — what he referred to as ‘the consequences of war for the innocent people caught up in conflict.’ What was there not to admire in this fine public intellectual?”Richard Samuels, director of CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science
“I will always remember John in his tortoise shell glasses, leaning forward thoughtfully to ask more questions. “But what about x,” he would ask. “Hmm,” he would stop and think before speaking. He treated everyone with respect and humor whether they were staff or faculty, famous diplomats or people who came to the Center to hear talks.
John brought an important interest in human security to the Center. He wrote about key topics in this field: civilian deaths; the costs of Star Wars and arms trades; the ways that national narratives distorted policy choices. He actively supported and directed research to bring people from opposite sides together to talk about the past, whether it was Fidel Castro and Cuban leaders or Iranian leaders and the conflict with the US. For women faculty in CIS like me, his support was particularly critical – he cared deeply that everyone was at the table and had a voice. Making sure that the conversation encompassed human security as well as more traditional guns-and-tanks-and-cyber security made a huge difference.
John also valued people who knew how to really hold a conversation and not just grandstand. He had an outsized influence in making the Center an outstanding place for talk that led to new thinking, for talk that meant people cared deeply about their ideas and how they affected the world as a whole. In large part because of John - though of course, not just because of him - the Center has become my own favorite place for rigorous discussions, questioning assumptions, thinking about real-world problems and their solutions.
I will miss him terribly, but I also feel deeply privileged that we had him for the last 18 years. I hope he knew how much we valued him!”Elizabeth Wood, MIT professor of history and co-director of the MIT-Eurasia Program
“John was a good friend, capable administrator, and fine scholar. Most significantly, he was the conscience of our center, with an intense commitment to human rights, justice, and truth,” says Kenneth Oye, director of the CIS Program on Emerging Technologies and professor of political science and of data systems and society. “John walked the walk with hardheaded assessments of the civilian costs of war. John supported those who had the guts to reach across lines of ethnic and religious conflict. John brought new scholarship to CIS by inviting senior practitioners to MIT through the Robert E Wilhelm Fellowship Program. John supported truth tellers by helping bring courageous journalists from conflict zones to MIT through the Neuffer Program and by encouraging reporting on the front lines through the Institute for War Peace Reporting. He will be sorely missed.”Kenneth Oye, director of the CIS Program on Emerging Technologies and professor of political science and of data systems and society.
“For me, working with John on the Human Rights and Technology program at CIS meant putting together MIT’s strengths in technology (and amazing students centered on technology) with the call for morality that must never be ignored, especially in technology. The strength of that combination received, in John’s hands, a focus of modest excellence that we must continue to uphold in his memory. I think of him as the paradigm of Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘radical goodness.”Anat Biletzky, CIS research affiliate and co-founding director with Tirman of the Center’s Human Rights and Technology Program Albert; and the Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy, Quinnipiac University.
John’s sudden passing leaves a significant void in our foreign policy community, taking away from us too soon a voice whose every scholarly pursuit and professional collaboration was tethered to clear and unwavering principles of, and love for, justice, democracy and human rights. John centered his critical eye and writings on examining own government's misdeeds around the world, especially its militarism and weapons-trade run amok; through his research and writings, he relentlessly, tirelessly pursued reforms of U.S. foreign policy. I first came to know John in our overlapping work nearly two decades ago investigating the impact of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003; our shared commitment to forcing our country to confront the true magnitude of harm we caused the Iraqi people became the basis our friendship. I’m very proud that John was among the first scholars to join our organization, DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), as a Non-Resident Fellow and among the first contributors to our publication, Democracy in Exile, and very fortunate in particular to have had the opportunity to partner with him and the Center for International Studies on a number of ambitious projects we pursued over the past two years. I will sorely miss John’s camaraderie and friendship, buoyed by his quiet, dry wit.Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
“I have spent 30 years and essentially my entire professional life trying to make some small contribution to peace and how media can contribute to that. One of the signal reasons is John Tirman. On my first trawl, all those years ago, to enquire about this curious pathway, he was in the top couple of leading lights in the field to meet, and unsurprisingly he was way ahead on this, as on so many things. He not only set me on my way. Over the years, he served as an advisor, funder, mentor, IWPR Board member (including a spell as chair), inspirational and incredibly productive author and finally, and above all, friend. Traveling around the world detaches you from places, and it's harsh to know that we cannot sit, as we would, in the New England woods somewhere, sucking a beer and chewing the fat, about life and family, work and world peace. John could do it all. I'd always held out rediscovering such moments with him as one of the pleasures of return. But I'm in Ukraine, and one of the reasons is that I'm still following in his footsteps. We always will be.”Anthony Borden, founder and executive director, Institute for War & Peace Reporting
“We were in the process of finalizing the US-Iran web project (we were actually planning a meeting in the next few days) which John and I (and others) have collaborated on since 2005. In 2019 we did a complete redesign and reprogramming of the scholarly platform which was supposed to go live this September. It has been such an amazing and rewarding journey with John on this project, from its early beginnings in 2005, meeting many scholars, political leaders and other colleagues along the way and at several US-Iran Critical Oral History conferences while adjusting the online project to the constantly changing realities of the US and Iran relationship. John was such a loyal and dedicated supporter of our collaboration who never lost trust in the work and its impact on the scholarly community. Throughout these years we not only became close collaborators but also good friends. It’s still unimaginable that his life came to such an abrupt end. Here’s the link to the most recent version of the project: US-Iran Relations: National Narratives, America, Iran, and the Clash of Civilizations (mit.edu).”Kurt Fendt, Senior Lecturer Director of the Active Archives Initiative, MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing
“John Tirman cared about people, and brought this care into his meticulous scholarship. He was an ally in critiquing the Bush administration's ‘war on terror’ and the Islamophobic way it was pursued, and made the scientific case for large numbers of civilian deaths in America's wars. He was convinced that popular movements also matter for geopolitics, a keen insight that few of his colleagues take into account. I counted him a friend and will deeply miss him.”Juan Cole, Richard P Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan
“Every day John spent with our MIT community was a blessing. He led all around him to be smarter, wiser, more kind, more generous, more compassionate, and more dedicated to justice, fairness and the common good. By his example he inspired us to reason together, in a spirit of mutual respect, toward leaving the world better than we found it. He did this all the time, every day. I wish we could clone him a thousand times.”Stephen Van Evera, Ford International Professor of Political Science, MIT
“Shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden passing of MIT’s John Tirman. His book THE DEATHS OF OTHERS is a classic and he was a deeply principled scholar I admired greatly,”Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor International Relations, Harvard University
“I just wanted to express my condolences over the loss of John Tirman … He was always very generous with his time when I had questions for him back in my [Boston] Globe days and since then as well. He was a fine scholar, and made huge contributions to our understanding of war and peace. He also was a fine man, always decent and helpful.”James Smith, Harvard Kennedy School
“John was a longtime friend, benefactor, and scholarly guide. His early support through the Winston Foundation was crucial to the National Security Archive's work on Iran. He later brought together a wonderful group to launch a full-scale project on the rocky history of US-Iran relations that convened several conferences with key American, Iranian, and other former government officials and scholars, underwrote research trips to Iran, and produced valuable new scholarship in the form of books, articles, and a trove of previously classified historical records.
His love of international affairs, his deep passion for exploring and disseminating knowledge, especially on basic human subjects like casualties of war, his leadership and initiative, his warm and generous friendship and encouragement, and over these last months his dignity in facing serious health issues have touched many of us permanently. It's still a shock to lose him so unexpectedly.”Malcolm Byrne, CIS research affiliate and co-author on John’s latest book, “Republics of Myth.” He is the deputy director and research director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
“I've known John for 15 years and it's not an exaggeration in the least to say that I partly owe my academic career and life trajectory to him. He was a mentor, generous benefactor, intellectual resource, and a kind, dear friend. As Malcolm rightly notes, our US-Iran relations projects simply would not have gotten off the ground were it not for John's vision, diligence, and care. John was especially kind toward me. Not only did he include me - a fledgling grad student at the time - in the US-Iran project as an equal partner, but went further by reading my work, offering generous comments on my dissertation, writing letters of recommendation, making introductions, and always providing wise counsel. I will miss his erudition, the warmth of his presence, and his acerbic charm. John really cared about this world, especially from the vantage point of the least advantaged. His writings and life's work reflected this in crisp, insightful, and compassionate prose. He was a thoughtful person to the very end, and we all shall miss him dearly.”Hussein Banai, CIS research affiliate and a co-author with John and Malcolm, on the book, “Republics of Myth.” He is associate professor at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.
“What a shock. Such a wonderful person, a fine scholar with penetrating insights and unwavering integrity, an immensely valued friend.”Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at MIT
“I'm deeply saddened to learn about John Tirman passing away. I interacted with John during the Human Rights and Technology Fellowship. He was an incredibly kind person and a great mentor who has had a profound impact on my scholarship. I will miss him greatly.”Neil Gaikwad, MIT PhD Candidate and a CIS Human Rights and Technology Fellow
“I was so sorry to hear about John Tirman's tragic passing. I was lucky to get to know John as an SSP graduate student. He taught me a great deal about US-Iran relations and misperceptions. And he showed his support by coming to graduate student talks. We were grateful to have him as a mentor.”Reid Pauly, Dean's Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy, Brown University
“As engaged and passionate as he was about his research, John brought this same dedication as a father to our cherished daughter Coco, and to so many other outside interests that he shared with us, including his love for travel.”Nike Tirman, his former wife and mother to Coco Tirman
"John knew how to be a friend, always there, a good listener with empathy and thoughtful feedback. I knew John always had my back and so much more - great talks, travel together, countless great meals and great wine,and unquestionably loyal. He was an individual with a great joie de vie! We were in constant contact the entire friendship. It was like a fifty-plus year ‘My Dinner With Andre." I cannot begin to explain my appreciation for the length and depth of our friendship. Whether it was politics, sports, children, or relationships, everything was on the table. Knowing John was a tremendous gift that I am so grateful to have been part of."Mark Cooper
“Sitting here at home and thinking that just days ago John was amongst us: with his soft smile and nonchalant manner. And now he is not. But at least for me, John will always be. I will carry him with me remembering him as someone who was willing to support others, believed deeply in the imperative to state the truth and make whatever impact that we can in the short time we have, and in the day-to day of life (which is most of what we have and do) go about and just do the work/ walk the walk.”David Dolev, associate director of MISTI at MIT, and managing director of MISTI’s programs in the Middle East
“We called him Sonny. And why was that? Because in the decades he attended Boulder’s Conference on World Affairs, he always stayed at our house. The affection we felt for him was mutual. He called us Mom and Dad, and one year we even gave him a (very old) Volvo for his birthday. Sonny was a member of our personal CWA clan that included smart and funny movers and shakers, who every spring came to the University of Colorado for a week of panels, politics, and parties. Over the years the clan – and we - came to appreciate John’s dry wit, his passion for horse racing, and dare we say it, his flirtatiousness. And he could make a mean Pimm’s Cup. We wish the brilliant scholars who have authored these tributes could have watched JT summoning his inner funky chicken the night we went to a local bar to listen and dance to R&B pioneer, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. John was in ecstasy!!! We feel like we really have lost a son. We will miss John terribly.”Tracy and Michael Ehlers. Tracy Bachrach Ehlers, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor Emerita of the Department of Anthropology at University of Denver.
"I first met John in 2005 when he was the new Executive Director of the MIT Center for International Studies and I was a new PhD student in the political science department. I never took a class from John or worked with him on a peer-reviewed publication, but he nonetheless served as a mentor to me in every other aspect of academic life. He gave me my first job in graduate school—editing the CIS magazine. He gave me first my grant to conduct field research in the Middle East—after challenging me to sharpen my project’s focus. He pushed for me to join him for what became my first television interview—a discussion of US foreign policy in the Middle East. He was a incredibly kind man and a brave scholar. John went right at the most challenging and sensitive political issues and applied fresh, reasoned thinking to them—whether it was the future of Jerusalem, the civilian costs of war, or US.-Iran relations. He skillfully steered CIS to be a vibrant, policy relevant community of scholars and practitioners for nearly two decades. His loss is felt deeply in the MIT community and beyond, and his legacy lives on in the work and lives of the many people he touched."Peter Krause, Associate Professor of Department of Political Science at Boston College and MIT Security Studies Program Research Affiliate
"Working on issues of conflict and oppression requires a certain kind of human being, one who can combine keen insight with integrity, principle, and humanity. John was just such an individual. His gentle and kind manner complemented a fierce intelligence and moral agency that was unshakeable. He leaves a void but also a remarkable legacy of what it means to engage justice and human rights with great effect. I feel so privileged to have known him."Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University
"I hardly knew John as well as many, but I knew him well enough to know that he was one of those rare people who remind you of the goodness of people. I was very sad to learn of his passing, which I still find difficult to believe. Knowing that people like John existed helped make the harshness of the world somehow more bearable."Mary Sherman, Interim Associate Director, MIT's Art, Culture and Technology Program
"I am still trying to absorb the news and write something that approximates what I feel—which is a great sadness at the passing of this generous and understanding human being and exceptional scholar."Irene Gendzier, Professor (retired), Boston University, Department of Political Science
"John Tirman was an inspiration for both his passion and scholarship. And a role model as a public intellectual. But he was also just a very decent man—and a good friend."Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist
For several years John and I shared interests both serious and frivolous. Each in his own way, we both discoursed on international affairs and security matters. I did sprints called editorials; he fashioned whole books. But both of us took similar aesthetic pleasure from a day at the races – whether in East Boston, beautiful Belmont, Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne, historic Saratoga, or the rusty, bedraggled hippodrome in Moscow.Alan Berger, formerly at Boston Globe and an assistant professor at MIT
John’s characteristic reserve, his unruffled sangfroid, could suddenly dissolve at the track if a jockey did something dumb on a horse he had backed. With uncharacteristic petulance he would quote a famous trainer of the last century, Charley Whittingham, who derided jockeys as “small men with small brains.”
But such expressions of frustration were exceptions to a rule of calm, balanced lucidity. John could reflect with detachment on conflicts in the Middle East that others came to with what Yeats called “passionate intensity.’’ Like a good research scientist, he had no difficulty deciding he had been wrong about some impassioning issue.
But, as his colleagues had to know, John did harbor a certain unchanging idée fixe: Call it institutional loyalty – a bond to MIT, the Center for International Studies, and his colleagues there. Anyone who had experience playing a team sport would recognize John’s readiness to defend or laud his teammate-colleagues.
A certain recollection of our time together in the doomed Soviet Union in the spring of 1990 stays with me. We had come by overnight train from Leningrad to Moscow. We were having a meager oatmeal breakfast in the dining room of the faux-elegant Ukraina Hotel... and from a nearby table come the voice of Studs Terkel describing to his tablemates how he cashed a prodigious trifecta bet at the Arlington Park racetrack in Chicago.
It was then that John informed us that since many sites would be closed on a Sunday in Moscow, we might make best use of our time by taking in the races at the nearby Hippodrome. So it came to pass that we found ourselves among a polyglot crowd of Soviet citizens passionately debating speed and class for the daily double. There were Georgians, Kazakhs, Armenians, Chechens, and handicappers from many other ethnic groups in the great Soviet prison-house of nations. We may not have understood their disparate tongues, but we had a pretty sound understanding of the sorts of debates they were having.
At one point John turned to me with a sardonic smile and said, “You realize don’t you that there is not a single Marxist in this place?’’ We then speculated as to how much time was left to the imploding Soviet state. We thought we had learned something that the best informed analysts at the CIA would not grasp for another year and a half.
Much as John might be impassioned by the prospect of a road trip to Moscow, Tehran, or Beijing, he would become yet more excited about a chance to go horseback riding in the American West with his beloved daughter, Coco. Anyone who has ever doted on a child or grandchild would recognize in John the lineaments of paternal infatuation.
If there were an after-life, I wouldn’t mind spending it with John and a few other friends in an eternal return to Saratoga on a warm summer day...
It is humbling and gratifying to see the outpouring of respect, admiration, and friendship in the tributes to our brother, John. Perhaps we can amplify on those words as siblings.
We remember John as totally principled and unswerving in his beliefs. Early on his convictions in human rights, peace, and justice were evident. Often the Tirman dinner table erupted in disagreement over the Vietnam war, civil rights, and social justice issues. Raised in a Nixonian household, it was inevitable that John would have the facts, rationale, and erudition to make the cogent arguments in favor of these issues. It comes as no surprise to us that many of the tributes illustrate that continuing passion and scholarship in John's professional life.
We also recall John's courage and humility in his overcoming cancer in his late thirties, and his undiminished devotion thereafter to our mother and father for seeing him through those dark days. Much of that experience, we believe, is reflected in his similar devotion to, and his love for, his daughter, Coco.
We regret we are unable to attend the services for John, but want to extend our utmost gratitude to his many friends and colleagues for their kind words and tributes. And also our thanks to MIT for sponsoring and organizing this memorial.Bob Tirman and Charlotte Roper, siblings of John Tirman
"John was exceptionally kind to me when I was a slightly lost and overwhelmed junior professor newly arriving at MIT. His generosity and warmth made all the difference then and inspires me to try to pay it forward now. His absence leaves a hole in our community that will be impossible to fill."Richard Nielsen, Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT
"John Tirman was a big hearted, elegant, and treasured colleague whose intellectual bravery combined with surprising humility to make a huge impact on all who knew him, especially me. As partner and advocate for CIS’s Just Jerusalem project, and steadfast supporter of other DUSP-CIS initiatives, including the Urban Resilience in Chronic Violence (URCV) project, he made my own academic life at MIT a true joy. In partnership with Dick Samuels, he offered intra-MIT institutional opportunities that made it possible to transcend narrow disciplinary boundaries and forge pathbreaking ways of thinking about some of our world’s biggest challenges. John’s skills were legion. He was responsible for successfully negotiating the bureaucratic corridors of USAID to get our URCV funded, for bringing top experts and activists to the table in the study of some of the most intractable conflicts in the world, and for doing so with grace and humour. I will miss him so much."Diane Davis, Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Books and Publications
Tirman coauthored and edited more than fifteen books on international affairs, including, most recently, “Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), “Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash” (MIT Press, 2015) and “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars” (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Earlier work included: “Women, Migration, and Conflict: Breaking a Deadly Cycle” (Springer, 2009); a special post-9/11 series jointly organized by The New Press and the Social Science Research Council, “The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11;” “The Fallacy of Star Wars” (1984), the first important critique of strategic defense; and “Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade” (1997).
In addition, he published more than 100 articles in periodicals such as The Nation, Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Review.