Sirhan Sirhan (r), shown here with his attorney Russell E. Parsons, was 24 years old when he gunned down Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles.
THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY of 9/11 reminded Americans of how one attack on the homeland can change the course of history. But another reminder came just a month earlier, when a California parole board recommended the release of the man responsible for the first real act of Middle Eastern terrorism against America.
Just after midnight on June 5, 1968, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan gunned down Robert F. Kennedy in the crowded kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, moments after the charismatic New York senator had claimed victory in California's Democratic presidential primary. It was one of the most traumatizing political assassinations in modern U.S. history, and it left hundreds of thousands of Americans reeling with grief. In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder in Memphis just two months earlier, many feared that the nation was coming apart at the seams — that the world's democratic superpower was on the verge of something "like a mental breakdown," as Hubert Humphrey later expressed it.
Kennedy's victory in the California primary was seen as a potential momentum-shifter in the race for the Democratic nomination. Many Democrats yearned for a restoration of Camelot, cut short so cruelly in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, horrifyingly, another Kennedy had been martyred.
The parole panel recommended that Sirhan, now 77, be released from prison on the grounds that he no longer poses any threat. The firestorm of controversy generated by that decision made clear that even after more than half a century, RFK's death still evokes great feeling. At the same time, the news coverage, now as then, tended to downplay the very specific ideological motivations that drove Sirhan to commit his brutal crime.
That Sirhan could even be considered for parole was due to a legal stroke of luck. Following a lengthy trial in Los Angeles Superior Court in 1969, a California jury found Sirhan guilty of first-degree murder . Six days later, the jurors returned a verdict of death, rebuffing defense lawyer Grant Cooper's suggestion that a life sentence, rather than capital punishment, would be "a kind of posthumous tribute" to Robert Kennedy, who, he said, would have favored compassion. Yet in 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled capital punishment impermissible under the state constitution, automatically commuting the sentences of all death row inmates to life terms. Since life without parole wasn't an option then in California, Sirhan's new sentence became life with the possibility of parole — a punishment neither judge nor jury had favored. Within months, California voters approved a constitutional amendment explicitly authorizing the death penalty, but Sirhan remained safe from execution.
About his guilt, there was never any doubt. The 24-year-old opened fire before dozens of eyewitnesses, including journalists and photographers. He got off eight shots, three of which struck Kennedy, including the fatal bullet that entered his brain. Five bystanders were wounded. As Kennedy lay dying on the kitchen floor, Sirhan was subdued and handed over to police. As he was taken away, he shouted: "I did it for my country!"
The man who murdered Bobby Kennedy was an Arab Christian from Jerusalem. Born in 1944, when Palestine was still under British rule, Sirhan was raised in Jerusalem's eastern sector after it was occupied and annexed by Jordan during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. He was educated until age 12 in a school that adhered to the Jordanian curriculum, in which hatred of Jews and of Israel was a principal theme. "Children were taught that Jews were the ultimate embodiment of evil and should be destroyed," writes Mel Ayton in The Forgotten Terrorist , a deeply researched history of Sirhan and the RFK assassination. "Jordanian school textbooks ... called for Israel's destruction" and portrayed Jews "as thieves, occupiers, and enemies of the prophets, as cunning, deceitful, and treacherous."
The antisemitism and anti-Zionism inculcated in Sirhan as a schoolboy became indelible elements of his personality and worldview. If anything, they intensified when his family immigrated to the United States in 1957 and settled near Los Angeles. They reached a fever pitch after Israel's stunning 1967 victory against the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six-Day War. Sirhan loathed Israel and loathed America for its support of the Jewish state. He fumed to acquaintances that Jews controlled the media and had too much influence on U.S. politics. As a student at Pasadena City College in 1963 and 1964, he acquired a reputation for strident Arab nationalism.
Over time, Sirhan's animosity toward Jews and Israel came to focus on Kennedy, an unabashed supporter of Israel in its fight for survival. In speeches, RFK often quoted his older brother, John F. Kennedy, who had declared during the 1960 presidential campaign: "Friendship for Israel is not a partisan matter — it is a national commitment." At the time of the Six-Day War, the senator described Israel as "a tiny outpost of Western culture and ideals" and "a gallant democracy" and called for the United States to supply Israel with enough weapons to offset the Soviet Union's military supplies to the Arab bloc. During the run-up to the California primary, Kennedy urged that Israel be supplied with 50 Phantom fighter-bomber jets — considerably more than the 18 planes that Israel had lost in the war.
By then, Sirhan had resolved to assassinate Kennedy. "My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming ... more and more of an unshakable obsession," he wrote in his journal on May 18, 1968. "Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before June 5, 1968." Other entries in Sirhan's notebooks expressed similar threats. When he was asked in court whether he wrote those words because they articulated the goal he had in mind, he readily agreed: "Yes, sir, I did, in reference to the assassination of Robert Kennedy."
The evidence of Sirhan's guilt was as unassailable as the passions that fueled it. During his trial, he testified that he had killed Kennedy "with 20 years of malice aforethought" — a choice of words intended to link his crime to the creation of Israel in 1948.
"Every single Arab in America regrets the killing," the publisher of the largest Arab American newspaper told the New York Times . "But the trial will bring us a chance for publicity." When a Beirut magazine launched a defense fund for Sirhan, recounts Ayton, "contributions flowed in from every corner of the Arab world," while "Palestinian joy at the news of the shooting" was widely reported in the Middle East.
But in the United States, politicians and the press tended to downplay the idea that Kennedy had been gunned down as an act of Palestinian resistance. Sirhan's cry that he had killed RFK "for my country" was taken as evidence that he was a crackpot. In his New York Times column, James Reston insisted that killing Kennedy "to avenge the hatred of the Arab states for Israel — if that was the assassin's motive — was a wholly irrational act." Sirhan's lawyers urged the jurors to see their client's rage at Kennedy for supporting Israel as an indication that he was not mentally stable.
To their credit, the judge and jury dismissed that argument. But over the years, various conspiracy theories sprang up to explain Sirhan's deadly attack. There was speculation that he was a "Manchurian candidate" acting under hypnosis or a pawn controlled by the Mafia. |
The assassination of RFK was one of the most traumatizing political assassinations in modern U.S. history.
As long as Sirhan stayed behind bars, the views of the conspiratorial fringe mattered little. And until last month, it seemed inconceivable that Sirhan would ever be set free. On 15 previous occasions, he applied for parole; each time, prosecutors objected and parole was denied. But the policy of the current Los Angeles district attorney is not to oppose any parole application. No prosecutor attended Sirhan's 16th parole hearing or raised any objection to his release.
Nevertheless, the case against freeing Sirhan is as solid as ever. Claims that he has been rehabilitated and proved remorseful are risible. At last month's hearing, he said he is pained by the idea that he might have been involved in killing Kennedy, "if I did, in fact, do that." That's remorse? As Rory Kennedy, RFK's youngest child, wrote in an impassioned essay opposing parole, "how, having committed one of the most notorious assassinations of the latter part of the 20th century, can you be considered rehabilitated when you won't even acknowledge your role in the crime itself?"
When Sirhan began shooting in the Ambassador Hotel on that night 53 years ago, he did more than destroy an innocent human life, brutally upend America's political process, and deprive 11 children of their father. He also opened the door to the Arab terrorism that would inflict such bloody havoc on the West in the years ahead. The assassination that Reston pooh-poohed as "wholly irrational" has had a profound and lasting effect. It helped convince other Palestinians and Middle Eastern extremists that the most effective way to advance their cause was through bloody acts of public mayhem.
If the decision of the parole board stands, the first Palestinian terrorist in America "may walk free, no doubt to the cheers of those who share his views," said former Massachusetts congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II , RFK's oldest son. Those cheers would be yet another reminder that we live in a world shaped by Sirhan's act of political bloodshed.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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