RFK moments after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Credit: Wiki Commons.
Forty-five years ago, on June 6, 1968, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy died of gunshot wounds. His assassination, coming five years after his brother Jack’s and two months after Martin Luther King’s, traumatized America. Amid the tumultuous 1960s, with youth rioting, crime soaring, blacks protesting, the Vietnam War souring, and these young, visionary leaders dying, Americans wondered: “is ours a sick society?” While America then needed reforming, the soul-searching around Robert Kennedy’s assassination was unmerited. The truth -- which most overlooked then -- was that this Kennedy assassination was the first major act of Palestinian terrorism targeting the United States.
No new evidence has emerged, we just understand the world better. At the time, Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy’s murderer, was usually called a “Jordanian” -- there was minimal international awareness of the “Palestinians” as a factor in “the Arab-Israeli conflict." Reporters mentioned that he was motivated by Kennedy’s support for Israel. And the assassination occurred on the Six-Day War’s first anniversary. Nevertheless, the post-mortems emphasized the plague of violence in general, the availability of guns in particular, and the chaos that seemed to be threatening America. As my thesis advisor taught me, when Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy in 1963, many people said “he” killed Kennedy, believing Oswald was a lone gunman; five years later, when a lone gunman shot Bobby, many said “they” killed Kennedy, reflecting growing fears of broad amorphous, social forces many people now distrusted.
Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Christian Arab born in Jerusalem, who had immigrated with his family to the US when he was 12, said, when arrested, "I can explain it. I did it for my country." In his notebooks, he had scribbled: "Kennedy must die by June 5th,” the Six-Day War anniversary.
Further proof of Sirhan Sirhan’s identity as a Palestinian terrorist came in March 1973, when Black September terrorists took diplomats hostage at the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. The terrorists demanded a prisoner exchange, which included Sirhan. Eventually, Yasir Arafat ordered his henchmen to murder the three Western diplomats, a Belgian and two Americans -- a brutal crime that also was frequently overlooked.
Sirhan’s defense fed the confusion. Sirhan’s ironically named Jewish defense attorney, Emile Zola Berman, argued diminished capacity, calling Sirhan an “immature, emotionally disturbed and mentally ill youth.”
But reasons for denying Sirhan’s true intentions, and soft-pedaling totalitarian Palestinian terrorism, run deeper. Palestinian rejectionist terrorism was in its infancy in those pre-Munich Olympics massacre, pre-Entebbe hijacking days. Americans were in collective denial regarding the toxic strain of anti-Americanism providing oxygen to Palestinian totalitarian terrorism, lying at the ideological intersection of Arab nationalism and Third Worldism, not yet inflamed by Islamism.
Yasir Arafat and his allies launched an ideological war to shape world opinion. Exploiting the rise of a global mass media, and what Columbia University professor Edward Said called the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency,” the Palestinian extremists framed their local narrative as part of a global struggle. As a result, Said noted in 1979, “the Palestinians since 1967 have tended to view their struggle in the same framework that includes Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, and black Africa,” joining “the universal political struggle against colonialism and imperialism.”
This framework was anti-American, building on the Vietnam debacle to caricature the United States as the world’s evil imperialist power -- even though the Soviet Union was the true imperial power then. However, Americans still saw themselves as the country of the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps, of good works and the Great War. This American faith in their own goodness and guiltlessness abroad led them to overlook the clear evidence that this Palestinian targeted Kennedy.
Simultaneously, a growing culture of guilt, whereby the media and intellectual culture of self-criticism degenerated into a culture of self-loathing, kicked in. The hyper-critical discourse of the time made it easier to blame America’s flaws for the RFK assassination and to fit it into a narrative of Sixties dysfunction than to acknowledge that this history-altering crime was a foreign phenomenon imported into America by a deranged immigrant.
Only after the horrors of 9/11 did most Americans fathom the depth of anti-Americanism fueling much Middle East terrorism. The “why us” handwringing about “what went wrong,” reflected the denial built up over decades. The Kennedy assassination tale, therefore, highlights the high cost Palestinian totalitarian terror has exacted from civilized society. It spotlights the ongoing dangers of ideological anti-Americanism, which continues to mix with anti-Zionism and serve as an ideological glue in the bizarre Red-Green alliance, linking Progressives with regressive Islamists. And it should illuminate other ideological blindspots, other ways a Far Left or Third World culture of blame plays on a Western, American, and Israeli culture of guilt -- leading too many to absolve evildoers and blame our flawed but still functional democracies.
If most could not see Kennedy’s murder for what it was, and instead blamed America’s ills, how many of us fail to see the hostility against Israel for what it is, and instead blame Israel as “the obstacle to peace,” “the cause of the conflict,” “the guilty party?”
To honor Robert Kennedy’s memory most fully, we must see the Middle East conflict more clearly. But history should not create handcuffs; we cannot be so blinded by anger at what we see we also fail to dream. After all, RFK himself was on his own journey of healing from being JFK’s “ruthless” right-hand man to a prince of peace, hoping, he wrote, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” This fallen hero challenged the status quo, saying: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Dreaming of peace, we should too.