Sirhan Sirhan in custody in 1968 after the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy during a campaign stop in Los Angeles. Photo: TNS
For 54 years there has been a conspiracy of silence over the motive of Sirhan Sirhan who shot US presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy in the crowded serving kitchen passage of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California on June 5, 1968. Following the shooting, Sirhan criedvout, “I can explain.. Let me explain. I did it for my country.”
Before his name was made public, it was thought he could be Cuban. But as soon as he was identified as Sirhan Bechara Sirhan, it became he was a Greek Orthodox Christian. Later that day it was reported that he was Palestinian.
Last week a two-person panel recommended he should be granted parole as he has expressed remorse over the killing and is no danger to society. A full parole board has 120 days to review this decision while the California governor has the last word. Sirhan has applied for parole 15 times so far and been refused. Instead, his lawyers based the failed defence on unspecified diminished mental capacity which earned Sirhan a death sentence which was later commuted to life.
As the typical sentence for first degree murder in California is up to 25 years, Sirhan’s incarceration for more than half a century is both excessive and political. While two of Kennedy’s surviving children support Sirhan’s release, six do not. It is a curious coincidence that Kennedy had 11 children, while Sirhan’s mother, Mary, had at least 11 pregnancies.
The conspiracy of silence over Sirhan’s highly charged political motive dominated the trial where Sirhan’s lawyers did not agree on and emphasise his horrendous experiences as a child in Jerusalem during Israel’s war of establishment.
The conspiracy of silence even governed some reporting of last week’s development. An Associated Press article which had wide circulation referred to him, simply, as a “Christian Palestinian from Jordan [who was] angry at Kennedy for his support of Israel.”
But the story of why Sirhan, 24, confronted Kennedy, 42, in that narrow corridor did not receive serious attention, not even in the Guardian which normally supports the Palestinian cause.
In order to understand Sirhan’s motivation, it is necessary to hark back to violent events in Jerusalem that followed the UN General Assembly’s adoption on Nov. 29, 1947, of the resolution to partition Palestine between Palestinian natives and Zionist colonists when Sirhan was three years old.
On Dec. 30, Sirhan accompanied his father on a trip to the souq to buy coffee and a few things. As they approached the Old City’s Damascus Gate, a bomb thrown from a speeding car exploded. Sirhan fainted. His father picked him up and went into the gate and took shelter. But, they did not avoid the carnage. When Sirhan could walk, they exited though the gate after the dead and wounded had been taken away. Nevertheless, bones, blood and flesh lay on the road, the shocked survivers were looking for family members and weeping.
Subseqently, Sirhan and his eight year old brother, Munir, were playing in front of their home in the Musrara quarter outside the Old City when a British army lorry which had come under under fire veered off the street and struck Munir, killing him. While Musrara was subjected to frequent shooting and mortar attacks, Sirhan witnessed four more gruesome incidents before the proclamation of Israel in mid-May 1948. Overnight the seven Sirhans fled their home for the Old City where they found refuge in the Greek Orthodox convent before moving into an unfurnished room in a two storey house in the Armenian quarter.
As Bechara Sirhan was unemployed most of the time, the family relied on UN rations and odd jobs found by the elder boys. Traumatised by the violence he had witnessed and deprived of his home, Sirhan was a sensitive, quiet, serious boy. He probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder which was not officially recognised and given proper treatment until 1980.
In January 1957, the Sirhans moved to the US under a presidential decree allowing 2,000 Palestinian families to emigrate to the US. Sirhan wanted to stay in Palestine, regarded the US as an enemy due to its support for Israel, retained his Jordanian passport, and never settled comfortably into California. In Jerusalem, he had been a good student but in the US he was two years behind his peers and did not do well at a community college. Small of stature and lightweight, he trained as a jockey but injury ended this career, reducing him to a series of dead-end jobs.
In April 1948, while the Sirhans were still in Musrara, Robert Kennedy, then 22, scion of a wealthy family, reported for the Boston Post on the situation in Palestine during the last month of the British mandate. After visiting Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and a kibbutz, Kennedy expressed his admiration for the “undying spirit” of the Jews. He wrote, “They will fight and fight with unparalled courage.” His one-sided dispatches, published between June 3-6, showed Kennedy had developed a strong personal connection with Israel which coloured his political thinking from then on.
The West not only strongly supported Israel’s establishment which left 750,000 Palestinians homeless in their own land, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, but also celebrated Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the war which began on June 5, 1967. As another 250,000 Palestinians fled to across the Jordan river to Jordan, the Israeli victory was summed up as “the triumph of the civilised” by arch conservative British commentator Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph. This attitude permeated the political discourse in the West where Israel could do no wrong and the Arabs could never be right.
During a protracted debate in during 1968 over US arms sales to Israel, Kennedy made a campaign pledge to provide Israel with 50 supersonic Phantom warplanes which had been refused by then President Lyndon Johnson, who regarded them as offensive rather than defensive weapons. This deal both increased Israel’s strategic capabilities and turned the US into its main arms supplier. An alarmed Sirhan testified during his trial that the Phantoms would be used to bomb the Arabs, which they were.