40th anniversary of RFK assassination

Slaying gave US a first taste of Mideast terror

Analysts call Robert Kennedy's death a prelude to kidnappings and attacks

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / June 5, 2008

WASHINGTON - 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.

"I thought of it as an act of violence motivated by hatred of Israel and of anybody who supported Israel," said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who had worked on Kennedy's campaign as a volunteer adviser on gun-control policy. "It was in some ways the beginning of Islamic terrorism in America. It was the first shot. A lot of us didn't recognize it at the time."

Dershowitz said he came to fully understand the significance of the assassination when he learned that Sirhan had targeted others seen as pro-Israel. About one year after Kennedy's death, former United Nations ambassador Arthur Goldberg - for whom Dershowitz had clerked on the Supreme Court and with whom he shared a fervent Zionism - told Dershowitz that Sirhan had identified Goldberg as a potential target, too.

By then, Kennedy's slaying, which occurred 40 years ago today, was widely viewed as part of a cycle of American civic turmoil, marked by assassinations, urban riots, and violent protests. Yet a generation of revelations about Sirhan's motives - and a changed environment in which Americans have come to fear political violence with origins abroad - have drawn out his crime as a largely unacknowledged prelude to the kidnappings at the Munich Olympics, the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and the two assaults on the World Trade Center.

"Even though it wasn't perceived at the time as an act of political terrorism, on a visceral level - on a subliminal level - the Kennedy assassination planted a seed of concern in Americans about the Palestinian issue and the issue of terrorism," said Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of "Power, Faith and Fantasy," a history of US engagement in the Middle East.

Kennedy's run for the Democratic nomination in 1968 was conducted in the shadow of assassination. President John F. Kennedy, his brother, had been shot in November 1963 on a campaign-style trip through Texas. Just weeks after Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy in March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, too. Both assassins were American-born loners whose actions were not clearly tied to particular political causes.

To the extent that aides to Robert Kennedy feared violence against their candidate, they expected it might come from organized crime, Cuban exiles, or home-grown right-wingers - forces rumored to have been involved in his brother's death.

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.

"Robert Kennedy was pro-Israel," said Edelman. "So was basically every other American politician."

Yet Kennedy's high profile and involvement in New York politics made him a particular target for critics of the US relationship to Israel. A year earlier, during a UN Security Council session on the Six-Day War, a Saudi representative had suggested that Kennedy was controlled by Jewish interests, recalled Frank Mankiewicz, his press secretary.

"See if you can get him to repeat it in prime time," Kennedy quipped when told of the Saudi criticism.

While there were conversations within the Jewish community about the political motives behind Kennedy's death, according to Dershowitz, no Jewish or pro-Israel advocacy groups appear to have drawn attention to them. The Anti-Defamation League has still never acknowledged or commemorated the Kennedy assassination as violence targeted at Israel or American Jewry, a spokesman said.

"If anything, they would not do that because the feeling is, 'Oh, my God, we'll be blamed for that, too,' " Dershowitz said.

Even as fears of Middle Eastern terrorism have come to dominate the national subconscious since Sept. 11, 2001, Kennedy's death continues to be associated with domestic conflict and wanton violence.

When Hillary Clinton raised the subject two weeks ago, much of the outrage from her opponents and the media derived from the presumed analogy to the safety of Barack Obama - whose campaign has been likened to Kennedy's - rather than to recent terror attacks.

"We have in American political life an ultimate horror of assassination of prominent charismatic figures and [Robert Kennedy's assassination] is placed in that context," said Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who specializes in studies of violence and trauma. "Her unfortunate use of that example and the reaction to it both reflected that unspoken fear."

In last year's film "Bobby," set around Kennedy's death, fictional characters exhibit suspicion of one another and the direction of their country - but not terrorists with an anti-American agenda.

"In 1968," said John Ridley, the film's coproducer, people "looked at the government as a more radical force than some foreign element outside the government. In 2008, we might look at [the assassination] and say, 'Maybe it was Al Qaeda.' "

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