Fifty years ago, the American left shattered into countless fragments, and it has yet to recover. Blacks, anti-Vietnam protesters, white union members, Mexican workers, feminists and others – their fragile coalition increasingly cracked and splintered across the decade leading up to 1968, and then it fell apart all at once.
The backdrop was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in late August, which turned into a raging circus as the streets around the International Amphitheater went up in flames. The internal rift led to a Republican election victory that fall, as Richard Nixon, citing the chaos on the left, promised to restore law and order to the country. But for many, Nixon was just a historic traffic accident, in which a divided left and two assassins were involved. If the assassination of John F. Kennedy mortally wounded the left in 1963, the murder of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, almost five years later, confirmed the kill.
On March 31, 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson dropped a political bombshell. The object of widespread hatred within his own party, Johnson announced that he would not seek another term of office. He wasn’t one to relinquish power voluntarily, but two weeks earlier his avowed rival, Bobby Kennedy, had announced that he would take part in the primaries for the Democratic nomination against the serving president. Kennedy, a U.S. senator from New York, had served as the attorney general in his older brother’s administration and was considered a force of nature in national politics at the ripe old age of 42. His tenure in the administration had forged the image of a tough, strong leader.
In the wake of his brother’s assassination (which led to then-Vice President Johnson’s taking over as president) and elevation to mythical status, RFK seemed poised to become the leading candidate in whatever race he chose to enter. Above all, though, he seemed to many to be the most appropriate candidate to pull the Democratic Party back together at the historic, dramatic and revolutionary moment of the late 1960s.
This was a period of accelerated social and cultural transformations, and RFK was the only one who had succeeded in unifying exploited farmworkers and young educated urbanites, and a full range in between. Though JFK had been more charismatic, Bobby projected the common touch, not least because he unhesitatingly positioned himself alongside people who hadn’t necessarily voted for him and demonstrated with them against people who were likely to be potential voters.
The hope personified in RFK was aborted in a brief moment shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just after he had been declared the winner of the key California primary. After delivering an optimistic victory speech in the hotel’s main ballroom, he began to make his way out of the building through the kitchen, where, far from the eyes of the media, he stopped to shake hands with a busboy and greet workers. Suddenly, a man named Sirhan Sirhan, 24, armed with a pistol, stepped forward and fired a volley of shots. Kennedy was mortally wounded and five other people were also hit by bullets.
“Let me explain!” Sirhan shouted as he was subdued by a former FBI agent and others. “I did it for my country.” He was arrested and given a widely covered trial, but no one bothered to listen to him.
Bobby Kennedy, who died the following day, underwent an apotheosis: from symbol of the idealistic left to a character in a Greek tragedy encompassing both a family and a nation. In this drama there was no place for Sirhan, who aroused two types of reactions. The majority viewed him as a madman whose rants were not even worth listening to, while the minority saw him as part of a larger conspiracy against Kennedy the revolutionary, and in any case considered him a mere puppet who had nothing of his own to say. The bottom line was the same in both cases: Sirhan’s opinions were of no interest to anyone.
A new Netflix documentary series, “Bobby Kennedy for President,” paints a vivid portrait of the secret of the politician’s charm and of the vast emotional earthquake his assassination fomented. Kennedy touched deeply those who felt betrayed by the American dream; the four-part series shows his solidarity with their suffering and his ability to attract diverse groups, some of them conservative, with an openly liberal campaign that was characterized by cautious optimism. He represented the hope of the 1960s, and his assassination occurred just two months before the opening of the Democratic Party’s convention. Those who had looked forward to a victory celebration had to cope instead with the disintegration of the left-wing coalition in prime time, while Chicago burned.
Amid the political, cultural and social turbulence known as “the Sixties,” the figure of Sirhan Sirhan was forgotten. In retrospect, it’s worth looking more closely at him, because he was a type of killer Americans would soon encounter more of. Even more interesting is that all the facts were known at the time, but people were blind to them. That’s logical, though, as historians insist that a distance of time is crucial for analyzing major developments and processes.
For the sake of comparison: Will history ultimately show that U.S. President Donald Trump is a footnote in a liberal narrative whose hero is President Barack Obama, or will Obama go down as a footnote in the story of the rise of the right wing, in which Trump is the hero? Historical perspective – and of course the passage of time – is needed to answer that question, and 50 years after the assassination of RFK, the case of Sirhan Sirhan offers an excellent case for reexamination.
Scarred in Jerusalem
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian, was born in 1944 in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, opposite the Old City. He began to display psychological problems in early childhood, particularly during Israel’s War of Independence, which broke out when he was 3 years old. His mother, Mary Sirhan, told The Washington Post in 1979 how her son was scarred by the horrific scenes of fighting he witnessed in and around the Old City.
In 1948, at the height of the events, when the city was divided in two, the family fled Musrara and moved to the Jordanian-controlled eastern section of the city, for fear of what life would be like under Jewish rule. Until the war, Musrara had been an affluent Palestinian neighborhood, and the family lived comfortably. Afterward, however, they were forced to share one house with nine families. Sirhan’s father, Bishara, lost his job.
In 1956, when Sirhan was 12, the family received a special immigration permit issued by the United States to Palestinian refugees, and they settled in Pasadena, in Los Angeles. It is known that the son flirted with a variety of different religious philosophies.
Immediately after his arrest, following the shooting, 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. A 2008 article in the Guardian quotes one of Sirhan’s relatives as saying that the assassin had actually been a great admirer of Kennedy, but that after hearing the synagogue speech he ran from the room with “his hands on his ears, and almost weeping.” In his interrogation, too, 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.
“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.”
Researchers have shown an increasing interest in Sirhan in recent years, particularly against the background of such phenomena as Al-Qaida and ISIS. In a 2011 biography of Sirhan, “The Forgotten Terrorist,” Mel Ayton maintains that the prosecution deliberately chose to ignore evidence proving that this was the first American encounter with Middle Eastern terrorism. To prove his point, Ayton presented evidence, forensic findings and even a notebook in which Sirhan wrote the sentence “RFK must die,” obsessively, thousands of times, proof of premeditation on the assassin’s part.
Ayton is probably right, but the harsh judgment about people not understanding the meaning of Sirhan’s Palestinian identity is unfair. It’s true that his origins and background, his cry of “for my country” immediately after the shooting and his official statements during his interrogation were not sufficient to change the prosecution’s presentation or alter the way Sirhan was publicly perceived. All the facts were known already during the trial, but they did not modify the narrative about a mad, brainwashed assassin, one that was widespread during the Cold War era.
Sirhan’s case is a perfect example of a concept falling off the radar because of its newness. On the day of the assassination, June 5, 1968, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was exactly one year old, and American interest in it was only minimally developed. The description “assassin of Arab origin” that clung to Sirhan was enough for Americans. Those who were interested in digging a little deeper classified him as a “Jordanian citizen” – because of his passport – but that was as far as interest in his identity went.
Even within the Arab world, an action taken in the name of so-called Palestinian nationhood was a relatively novel idea. The Palestine Liberation Organization was new – it was only a year later that Yasser Arafat would take its reins – and few in the West had ever heard the word “Palestinian.” The assertion by Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time of the trial, that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” certainly did not help Sirhan’s being tagged as a political assassin with a national agenda.
The tacit assumption of the period – with its burgeoning number of political movements, undergrounds and cells – was that a political murder was by definition an act committed under the auspices of an organization. But the PLO, for its part, denied any connection to Sirhan, and it wasn’t until the following decade that Palestinian organizations began to demand his release from prison.
“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, told The Boston Globe in 2008. The same article quoted historian Steven Gillon as saying that Sirhan “was a Middle Eastern version of [JFK’s killer] Lee Harvey Oswald a lone gunman who wants to become famous by shooting a famous person” and not someone who is driven by political ideology. Sirhan simply did not meet the expectations of his contemporaries for what is now termed “lone-wolf terrorism.” After all, if a terrorist attack takes place in a forest but there’s no one to understand it as such, is it still a terrorist attack?
Sirhan was there from the beginning, but the idea and the definition of the “lone wolf terrorist” were different. He was just another “madman,” not a calculating assassin acting out of ideology.
In the 19th century, the “lone wolf” label was employed rarely, and when it was, it was to describe murderers with apparently arbitrary motives. Only in the wake of events in the 1990s did the “lone wolf” concept enter the public lexicon actively, with figures such as Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City with a bomb in 1995, or in Israel, with the American-born Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron a year earlier. The American authorities became increasingly fearful of “domestic terrorism,” and particularly of solitary killers against whom it was difficult to defend. Only then were the resources made available to investigate their psychological profile in order to thwart future attempts.
No fixed profile
According to Dr. Paul Gill, a senior lecturer in security and crime science at University College London, research on the subject of individual terror acts is still in a fledgling state, and the phenomenon has yet to be fully identified and defined. In a 2015 lecture, Gill presented new data on the subject revealing that a lone-actor terrorist is 13 times more likely to be suffering from a mental illness than a group-based terrorist.
Gill noted that researchers were surprised by the findings, which went “completely against what the psychology of terror literature was saying.” In fact, the earlier research showed that, only “about a third had been diagnosed with mental disorders before they [carried out] their attack.” However, “the vast majority of those studies were focused on group-based [terrorism].” Unemployment and addictions also tend to appear in these lone killers. In addition, the assumption that mental illness leads to spontaneous acts is not always correct, he noted, “because sometimes a disorder will help you act in a much more rational way.”
The bottom line is that no distinct personality profile of a lone-actor ideological killer exists. Such individuals can be of any age, from a range of professions, and in effect from any background. What surprised Gill was the psychological resemblance they bear to individuals who perpetrate massacres at workplaces or in schools.
“We really did expect to find major differences between the two,” Gill told the American PBS program “Frontline” in July 2016. “But our study shows that the behaviors they engage in, and their trajectory into violence, look really, really similar.” The main difference, apart from the political and ideological rage vs. personal/individual rage, is in the choice of venue: The nonpolitical killers tend to attack in a place they’re familiar with, whereas the political killers usually choose a place they didn’t know before. Gill subsumes both groups under one category, which he terms “grievance-field violence.”
‘Burned the hell out of me’
Sirhan, 74, is still in prison, and his statements over the years are consistent with the research conclusions. In his trial, nearly 50 years ago, he stated, “When you move a whole country, a whole people, bodily from their own homes, from their land, from their business, that is completely wrong. That burned the hell out of me.” Yet today, when public opinion may be better primed to accept his original motivation, but less inclined to forgive him, he offers an alternative explanation. The last time he appeared before the parole board, in 2016, he adopted a popular conspiracy theory and claimed he had been hypnotized when he shot Sen. Kennedy.
It’s the same problem criminology was facing five decades ago, Gill noted in his lecture. In the past, he said, “The study of terrorism has a really big aggregate of problems, which criminology had about 50 years ago. They talked about the ‘criminal,’ but over time our understanding of the criminal became a lot more disaggregated. [We found that] what interests arsonists and influences them is very different from sexual offenders, very different from burglars. They have very different drivers: The behavior and the motivational underpinnings behind those crimes are very, very different There’s a different psychology involved. But we still talk about terrorism as a sort of aggregate problem. Yet what drives someone to be a suicide bomber might be very different from someone who is a financier for a terrorist organization, but we treat them all as ‘terrorists.’” In short, he concluded, a more complex understanding of these phenomena is needed.
In the years that have passed since September 11, 2001, the period from Al-Qaida to ISIS, the prevalent image of the lone wolf has been detached from the extreme right – even though most of the solitary assassins in the United States continue to come from that part of society – and become associated with the Muslim world. That shift has engendered a readiness to investigate the lone murderers, after years in which they were generally categorized as “madmen,” without further examination. Still, even now, although there is a more serious consideration of motives in such cases, it is often accompanied by the old approach that looks for the person pulling the strings: Perhaps there’s a large organization behind the lone actor; perhaps such people have undergone “online radicalization,” as is usually said of ISIS terrorists. For instance, when Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel rammed into and killed 84 people in Nice on Bastille Day 2016, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve stated, “This is a new type of attack. We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of ISIS and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them.”
Madness or conspiracy are convenient explanations for public opinion; belief in a tragic fate, as in the case of the Kennedy family, is sometimes easier to accept. However we define Sirhan – Palestinian terrorist or American psychopath – what’s scary is precisely the rational motives that drove him. Journalists, like many readers, find it difficult to accept the thought that an individual with a pistol and sufficient malice can divert history from its course.
The assassination of Robert Kennedy left the Democrats without an obvious candidate going into the Chicago convention. Finally, it was the bland vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who was nominated as a compromise candidate, even though he hadn’t run in the primaries. On November 5, 1968, with the Democratic Party in a shambles, Richard Nixon defeated Humphrey. The latter made a brief statement: “I have done my best. I have lost, Mr. Nixon has won. The democratic process has worked its will.”