June 5 is the 40th anniversary of the first act of Palestinian terrorism against America — the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. While Kennedy’s 1968 murder is a defining moment in American history, his killer’s motive has faded from memory. It’s worth recalling for the light it sheds on the world today.
Kennedy served on the legal staff of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s communist-hunting Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the 1950s. His brother, President John F. Kennedy, appointed him attorney general in 1961. In 1964, he was elected senator from New York. He jumped into the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1968.
But before politics, between college and law school, Kennedy was a correspondent for the Boston Post in Palestine during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Had he visited Jerusalem’s Musrara district, he might have met the 4-year-old Sirhan.
The war drove Sirhan’s family into the Jordanian-occupied Old City of Jerusalem. The child was deeply affected by the war. He grew up with a bitter hatred of Israel and Zionists.
The Sirhans were Christian Arabs. An American church sponsored their immigration to the United States in 1957. They settled in Pasadena.
After graduating from John Muir High School, Sirhan enrolled in Pasadena Community College. He was expelled in 1964 for poor attendance and grades. For the next several years, he drifted from job to job.
He wanted riches and respect but lacked the patience, perseverance and talent to achieve them. He began drinking and exploring mysticism and occult philosophies like Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. He practiced self-hypnosis and tried to move objects with his mind.
Sirhan blamed America for his lack of success and hated the country for its support of Israel. His anger gradually fixed on Robert Kennedy, who promised to send 50 fighter jets to Israel if elected president. He wrote in his notebook: “Kennedy must die by June 5th” — the first anniversary of the Six-Day War.
The California primary election was on June 4, 1968. Kennedy’s victory party was at the Ambassador Hotel (since torn down by the Los Angeles Unified School District to build a high school). Darryl Gates, then a Los Angeles police officer and later LAPD chief, recalled that “Kennedy’s people were adamant, if not abusive, in their demands that the police not even come close to the senator while he was in Los Angeles…. This was politics, Kennedy-style people politics. And in his bid for the presidency, Kennedy had taken the side of the ‘peaceniks’ and the flower children…. He wanted no uniforms around at all.”
After Kennedy’s murder, Secret Service protection for presidential candidates became standard.
While Kennedy spoke to supporters in the Ambassador’s Embassy Ballroom, Sirhan waited for him in the adjacent kitchen pantry. Shortly after midnight, June 5, Kennedy was led through the pantry to a press conference in another room. As Kennedy turned to shake hands with the kitchen staff, Sirhan stepped forward and shot him in the head. He died the next day.
After his arrest, Sirhan said: “I can explain it. I did it for my country.”
It was understood that Sirhan’s motivation related to the Middle East conflict. The Los Angeles Times reported on June 6: “When the Jordanian nationalist, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, allegedly shot Kennedy, ostensibly because of the senator’s advocacy of U.S. support for Israel, the crime with which he was charged was in essence another manifestation of the centuries-old hatred between Arab and Jew.”
Apologists for Sirhan quickly sprang up. For example, Mohamed T. Mehdi, secretary-general of the Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, published “Kennedy and Sirhan: Why.”
According to Mehdi, Sirhan’s act had a rational rationale: “The one and only reasonable explanation for Sirhan’s decision is to bring the tragedy of Palestine to the attention of the American people so that the people of the United States would not continue the strange policy of helping Zionist Jews of Europe and elsewhere go to the home of Christian and Moslem people of Palestine.”
Mehdi concluded that Sirhan had acted in justifiable self-defense: “[W]hen Robert F. Kennedy supports Israel against the Arabs, he is assuming the role of an Israeli high ranking official…. Sirhan was defending himself against those 50 Phantom jets Kennedy was sending to Israel.”
However, popular understanding of the ties between Kennedy’s murder and his support for Israel didn’t last. To begin with, the FBI found no link between Sirhan and any Arab organization, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). A connection would have bolstered a political motive; contrariwise, the lack of a connection tended to raise doubts about such a motive.
In addition, contemporary commentators decried America’s “culture of violence.” Amid the calls for gun-control legislation, Sirhan became a symbol — but of American sociopathy, not of Palestinian grievance.
Most important, Sirhan’s lawyers decided to try to save his life with a “diminished capacity” defense. Diminished capacity refers to the defendant’s inability to form the specific intent required for first-degree murder. If successful, Sirhan would be guilty only of a lesser crime and would be ineligible for the death penalty.
This defense required downplaying evidence of motive, instead emphasizing the head injury Sirhan received falling off a horse and much psychiatric testimony. The prosecution was kept busy with its own mental experts.
Thus, over Sirhan’s objections, evidence concerning Palestinians and Zionists was pushed into the background. (One of his lawyers, Abdeen M. Jabara, later cynically asserted that it was the Zionists who had suppressed the truth.) While unsuccessful — the jury found Sirhan guilty of first-degree murder and imposed a death sentence — the diminished capacity defense lent itself to a view of Sirhan as merely mentally ill, rather than politically motivated.
Finally, the conspiracy theorists moved in. Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty announced that Sirhan was “inflamed” by communist groups. Truman Capote said that Sirhan was hypnotically controlled. (Weirdly, before his murder, Kennedy was at the Malibu home of John Frankenheimer, director of the 1962 film, “The Manchurian Candidate,” in which a man is brainwashed and programmed to kill a presidential candidate.)
Others pointed to the Mafia, the illuminati, the military-industrial complex or the CIA as the puppet masters. The more the conspiracists insisted that Sirhan was a pawn or fall guy, the more they had to claim that he had no actual, believable motive of his own to shoot Kennedy.