Shot heard round the world - Robert Kennedy

Shot heard round the world

It is now clear that Robert Kennedy's assassination 40 years ago was in
fact an eminently political act

Decades must often pass before shattering historic events can be truly
understood. So it is with the assassination of senator Robert Kennedy
<> , which stunned the
world 40 years ago this month.

The killer, Sirhan Sirhan, seemed at the time to fit the pattern of the
wild-eyed lunatic that is often associated with political assassins.
James Reston, the eminent New York Times columnist, called the murder "a
wholly irrational act"
Kennedy&st=p> . Most Americans saw it that way.

Only now is it clear how wrong this view was. Far from being a
"maniacally absurd" crime, as Newsweek concluded, the Robert Kennedy
assassination was in fact an eminently political act. It was the first
"blowback" attack the United States suffered as a result of its Middle
East policies.

Sirhan was the first in a line of Arab terrorists that would later
produce the bombers of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, American
embassies in East Africa, the USS Cole and the World Trade Center in New

"I can explain!" Sirhan cried out as he was arrested. "I did it for my
country!" At the time, that seemed to be no more than the raving of what
one American newspaper called "a mad man". Now that the word understands
much more about the upheaval that produced Sirhan, it sounds quite

Sirhan was not simply a "Jordanian citizen", as he was called at the
time. He was an embittered Palestinian who had been born in 1944 to a
Christian family in Jerusalem. During the war that broke out when he was
four years old, Jewish insurgents seized his house, and his family was
forced to flee. He was nearly killed in an Irgun bombing at the Damascus
Gate, and witnessed other violent attacks that deeply traumatised him.

As a young refugee, Sirhan attended a school where teachers exhorted
students to struggle for Palestinian rights. Later his family moved to
California, and he was there when Israel seized East Jerusalem and other
Arab territories in the Six-Day War
<> of 1967. He told at a friend
that he believed Fatah was justified in using terror to oppose Israeli

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Sirhan came to identify Robert
Kennedy, who he had originally supported, as a friend of Israel. Three
weeks before committing his crime, he watched a documentary about
Kennedy's involvement with Israel on CBS television. Soon afterward he
heard a radio tape of Kennedy telling an audience at a Los Angeles
synagogue that he would maintain "clear and compelling" support for
Israel. After hearing it, a relative later testified, Sirhan ran from
the room with "his hands on his ears, and almost weeping".

Sirhan timed his attack on Kennedy to coincide with the first
anniversary of the opening of the Six-Day War. At his trial, he sought
several times to place his crime in the Palestinian context. "When you
move a whole country, a whole people, bodily from their own homes, from
their land, from their business," he said, "that is completely wrong ...
. That burned the hell out of me." Few Americans had any idea what he
was talking about.

"The source of his rage, bitterness, and anger at 'Jews' was not
explained in most news stories," Mel Ayton, one of the few analysts who
has fully grasped the crime's Middle East connection, wrote in his 2007
book The Forgotten Terrorist: Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of
Robert F Kennedy
. "In those days most Americans had no idea what a 'Palestinian' was and
even fewer understood their grievances."

When news of Sirhan's background was flashed back to the Arab world
after he killed Kennedy, many people there instinctively understood what
had happened. They recognised the crime as a horrific expression of the
violent frustration that young Palestinians were beginning to feel.
Almost no one in the rest of the world, however, understood this.

Foreign interventions and entanglements often produce unpredictable,
even unimaginable long-term consequences. The murder of Robert Kennedy
is one example. If Israel had never come into existence, or if the
United States had not supported it, or if Kennedy had not reaffirmed
that support, Sirhan would probably never have pulled his trigger.

About this article


This article was first published on
<> on Friday June 13 2008. It was last
updated at 14:00 on June 13 2008.