June 5, 2008


Slaying gave US a first taste of Mideast terror: Analysts call Robert Kennedy's death a prelude to kidnappings and attacks (Sasha Issenberg, June 5, 2008, Boston Globe)

The shooting of Robert F. Kennedy is widely remembered as part of the wrenching domestic turbulence of the 1960s. But some scholars are beginning to see it as something quite different yet no less significant: America's first taste of the political violence of the Middle East.

Sirhan Sirhan, the young Palestinian-American who shot Kennedy, made the attack on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War in Israel. In his private writings, he had demonstrated anger over Kennedy's positions favoring Israel over the Palestinian cause. [...]

Sirhan, a Christian Arab born in Jerusalem, had moved to California as a teenager and was 24 when he shot Kennedy. "My only connection with Robert Kennedy was his sole support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians," he told David Frost in 1989.

That would have been largely unfamiliar to Americans as a political cause at the time of Kennedy's murder. UN Resolution 242, passed in the fall of 1967 in the wake of the Six-Day War, does not include the word "Palestinian" at all, and Middle Eastern issues were barely mentioned in a presidential campaign dominated by the Vietnam War.

"No one would have thought of this as Palestinian terrorism," Oren said. "They didn't even know the term 'Palestinian' at the time."

Government investigators quickly ruled out a conspiracy, and Sirhan has never been linked with any terrorist groups. When his trial began in 1969, Sirhan's attorneys quickly settled on a defense that their client lacked the mental capacity to have premeditated the attack, a defense that preempted a serious examination of his motives.

"My reaction and that of many people is that a crazy person could have had an infinite number of guiding forces and he just happened to have that one," Peter Edelman, who was issues director of Kennedy's campaign, said in an interview.

Sirhan's legal strategy demonstrated his lack of interest in using the courtroom as a venue to air his political grievances - or to introduce evidence that contradicted the prosecution's theory.

"He was a Middle Eastern version of Lee Harvey Oswald," said Steven M. Gillon, political historian at the University of Oklahoma. "He fit the profile of a lone gunman who wants to become famous by shooting a famous person rather than having a political ideology he wanted to advance."

In September 1969, Palestinian guerrillas hijacked a TWA plane over Greek airspace, perhaps the first time Middle Eastern terrorists had picked an American target and an increasingly frequent occurrence after the group Black September was founded the following year. But few in the United States or Israel showed any interest in portraying Kennedy as a victim of that cause - and those around Kennedy say he would have been an unlikely martyr.

They used to televise his parole board hearings--Charles Manson's too--and the specific claim he made was that, because of RFK's rhetoric about helping the downtrodden he thought the Senator would support the Palestinians and then felt betrayed when he didn't.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2008 7:37 AM

"He fit the profile of a lone gunman who wants to become famous by shooting a famous person rather than having a political ideology he wanted to advance."

Huh? Oswald was a Communist and Castroite. He was taking advantage of his good luck to be in the right place to further the cause and his ideology.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 5, 2008 9:27 AM