I remember well the day in early June of 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was murdered. I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, teaching several courses while supposedly working on a dissertation that I never wrote. I awoke in the morning to the news that he had been shot in California, shortly after the primary victory that instantly established him as, in his unintentionally ironic words, “a viable candidate” for the presidency.
I went to my classes in the morning. The students were stunned. I said, stupidly, that I thought he would pull through. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started teaching my logic class. Some of the students left, and nobody, including me, paid attention to the material.
Counterfactual speculation in history has a deservedly bad reputation. It’s hard to predict how things would have been different if Kennedy had lived to run, and – quite likely – to be elected President. Would he have withdrawn the US from Vietnam more quickly, or, alternatively, presided over a military victory? Would he have improved race relations in the country? Would he have been quicker than Richard Nixon to help Israel in 1973? He was a great supporter of Israel, and indeed that was the motive of the man convicted of murdering him, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.
Sirhan is a Christian Arab who was born in Jerusalem. In 1948, his family moved from the western to the eastern part, “for fear of what life would be like under Jewish rule.” In 1956, when he was 12, they moved to the US. Immediately after the murder, he claimed that he had done it because of Kennedy’s pro-Israel sympathies:
Sirhan told his captors that he had made the decision to kill Kennedy only three weeks earlier. On the radio, he had heard a speech delivered by the candidate during a visit to a synagogue, in which Kennedy promised to arm Israel with dozens of warplanes, calling it the lesson he’d learned from the Six-Day War a year earlier …
Sirhan explained that the date of the assassination was not accidental, that he had chosen it because it was the first anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War.
Later he reinforced his earlier statement:
“To me he [Kennedy] was my hero, he was my champion,” Sirhan told British journalist David Frost during an interview at the state prison in Soledad, California, in 1989, one of only two television interviews he has given over the years. “He was the protector of the downtrodden and the disadvantaged, and I felt that I was one [of those]. And to have him say that he was going to send 50 Phantom jets to Israel to deliver nothing but death and destruction on my countrymen, that seemed as though it were a betrayal, and it was sad for me to accept and it was hard for me to accept.”
At the time, Sirhan was identified in the American media as a “Jordanian.” A pastor that knew his mother called him a “Jordanian nationalist” and that was how he was described by the LA Times. Today he is more likely to be identified as a “Palestinian,” driven to do what he did by the horrors of the nakba and “the occupation” (only one year old at the time), but I suspect the earlier conception is closer to the truth. Either way, it is irrelevant. He is just another violent Arab terrorist. Unfortunately we know the type well. A nobody who wants to become somebody by an act of outrage that will give him a place as a hero of his people.
Sirhan was convicted and was sentenced to death. But in 1972, California’s Supreme Court declared the death penalty “cruel and unusual punishment” and all death row prisoners including Sirhan were re-sentenced to life imprisonment. Capital punishment was re-instituted a few months later by a constitutional amendment, but death sentences were not re-imposed.
Interestingly, there are somewhat credible arguments that can be made for the presence of a second shooter, and even that the fatal bullet came from that shooter’s gun and not Sirhan’s. Kennedy certainly had enemies other than Jordanian/Palestinian nationalists, having led a take-no-prisoners war against organized crime in the early 60s. But legally and morally it doesn’t matter: Sirhan deliberately and with premeditation opened fire on Kennedy and is guilty of murder regardless of whose bullet killed him.
This week, the California parole board voted to recommend his release, on the condition that he join an alcohol abuse program and get therapy. The parole board has up to 120 days to review the decision, and then the governor, Gavin Newsom, will have to approve it. Since Sirhan never obtained US citizenship, he could be deported to Jordan (where he would join Ahlam Tamimi as a terrorist celebrity). Would the Palestinian Authority pay him the usual stipend for imprisoned terrorists? Given his long prison term, the retroactive payment would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Robert F. Kennedy was intensely anti-communist – he served as an assistant counsel to the McCarthy committee in 1953 – and outspokenly pro-Israel, characteristics that would not endear him to today’s American Left. On the other hand, he was very popular in the black community during the 1960s because of his actions on behalf of racial justice as Attorney General and advisor to his brother, President John F. Kennedy. He was loved by liberal students, who believed that he would quickly end the Vietnam war.
Kennedy, in fact, was precisely the opposite of today’s left, with its self-imposed ideological straitjacket. Tough and pragmatic, but also (perhaps a bit later on) compassionate toward those he saw as disadvantaged. It’s tragic that he was assassinated before he had realized his potential as a leader. The contrast between his greatness and the smallness of his despicable murderer is palpable.
Which makes me wonder: how will the American Left relate to Sirhan’s release, if it occurs. Will Rashida Tlaib praise him as a hero of the Palestinian Cause? How will BLM relate to the murderer of the man who probably did more to end Jim Crow in the South than any other white man?
For my part, I hope the parole board or the governor will come to their senses and keep him locked up, until he rots.