The Fate of Bobby Kennedy’s Assassin

Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, one of the nine surviving children of the late Robert F. Kennedy, was at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, with a gaggle of his relatives and siblings last August when the California Board of Parole Hearings unexpectedly recommended the release of the man who assassinated his father, Sirhan Sirhan.

“We were devastated,” Maxwell told me yesterday. “I was shocked, deeply dismayed, emotional.”

For Maxwell and most of his siblings, the weeks that followed were both disorienting and mobilizing. Christopher Kennedy, another of the senator’s surviving sons, also used words such as “stunned, shocked, overwhelmed, disappointed, angry, depressed, agitated, active” to describe his emotions to me. “My whole life, I’d never said the words assassin or assassination or Sirhan or Ambassador Hotel [the place where his father was shot],” he said. That changed in August. “I’ve said them hundreds of times since then.”

Yesterday afternoon, most of RFK’s surviving children finally exhaled when California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has described the former attorney general, senator from New York, and anti-war 1968 presidential candidate as his political hero, announced he had exercised his authority to reverse the board’s ruling and deny parole to Sirhan. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed explaining his decision, Newsom highlighted Sirhan’s role as a “potent symbol of political violence” and his refusal “to accept responsibility for the crimes.”

The possibility of parole for Sirhan has always been intensely emotional and painful for most of RFK’s surviving children. Yet the real issue Newsom confronted had less to do with what parole would mean for the family than what it might mean for the country.

The United States now faces a grim trend in which violence, threats, and intimidation rooted in former President Donald Trump’s political movement are spiking in communities across the country. Concern is growing that law-enforcement officials are failing to fight this fire through a clear message of consequences. As Newsom understood, this would seem a very odd time to release the nation’s most notorious living political assassin.

The debate over Sirhan’s fate links two distinct eras of American political violence—and stands as an ominous reminder that the spiral of violence now escalating, if unchecked, could exact an even higher price on society than it has so far.

Born in Jerusalem, Sirhan and his Christian Palestinian family moved to the U.S. in the late 1950s, living mostly in Pasadena, California. He shot and killed Kennedy on June 5, 1968, just as Kennedy was leaving the rally celebrating his victory in the California primary, the climactic event of the Democratic-nomination process.

The murder of RFK—following the killing just a few weeks earlier of Martin Luther King Jr., and the assassination of RFK’s brother President John F. Kennedy less than five years before—marked another grim milestone in the last period when the U.S. experienced a sustained wave of violence spurred by political causes.

Attacks on civil-rights leaders and workers by racist white southerners were a bloody constant, particularly in the early years of the 1960s, but continuing though King’s assassination in April 1968. Later, and well into the ’70s, the locus of violence shifted to the left, with radical groups like the Weather Underground (named after a Bob Dylan lyric) and the Symbionese Liberation Army (the ragtag faction that kidnapped the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst) pursuing sporadic attacks intended to inspire a full-scale uprising against capitalism and the political system. One Rand Corporation study in 1980 counted nearly 600 incidents over roughly the previous decade across the U.S. that qualified as some form of domestic terrorism, with bombings the most common tactic.

Sirhan didn’t exactly fit into this domestic political spectrum. (On the occasions when Sirhan has acknowledged shooting Kennedy, he has said he did so because of the senator’s support for Israel, particularly his endorsement of sending fighter planes to the Jewish state.) But Sirhan did reflect and reinforce the growing sense at the time among a range of disaffected Americans that violence was an effective and justified means of advancing political goals, however hazily defined.

That corrosive idea is clearly spreading again, this time predominantly on the right. In multiple opinion surveys, a majority of Republicans have agreed with the sentiment that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Events of the past two years have made clear that for many on the right, those aren’t just offhand opinions casually expressed in a survey. The most spectacular example, of course, was the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021. But threats are permeating the political process in a manner unseen since the 1960s, and are proliferating likely even more widely than they did then. (Hours before Newsom’s announcement that Sirhan had been denied parole, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers, was charged with seditious conspiracy for his role in the insurrection.)

Reuters recently cataloged more than 800 threats of violence from Trump supporters against election officials in 12 states. Not just Democrats have been targeted: Multiple elected Republicans who criticized Trump or voted to impeach him have reported similar intimidation. Threats have multiplied as well, again predominantly from the right, against public-health officials, school-board members, and municipal officials over masking, shutdowns, and other policies related to controlling the coronavirus pandemic.

Among these targeted groups, frustration is growing over how few prosecutions are arising from these threats. As Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, who had a mob of protesters descend on her house during the struggle over certifying Trump’s defeat in December 2020, recently told me, “What I fear is given the complete lack of accountability and consequences for those who have been levying these threats in all forms, they will only escalate.”

All of this was the inescapable backdrop for Newsom’s decision.

Over the years, as Newsom noted, Sirhan has offered wildly different accounts of the murder. At his trial in 1969 he acknowledged his actions, rising in the courtroom at one point (not while under oath) to declare, “I killed Kennedy willfully, premeditatively, with 20 years of malice aforethought”—a reference to the length of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But more often, in his parole hearings, he has said that he doesn’t remember what happened, or that he was drunk that night, or that the Kennedy supporters who struggled with him backstage were responsible for all the shots fired after his first one. (Besides RFK, five other people were shot.) One psychiatrist who examined Sirhan during a parole hearing in 2001 quoted him as saying, “I doubt that I committed this crime.” As recently as a 2016 parole hearing, Sirhan testified that he recalls only that he was there and “supposedly shot a gun.”

From 1983 through 2016, the parole board denied Sirhan’s first 15 petitions for freedom. But last August, a two-person board recommended parole. (At that hearing, Sirhan said he had little memory of the evening, but acknowledged he “must have” brought a gun to the hotel.) Notably, that was the first hearing at which the Los Angeles County district attorney did not appear to argue for keeping him incarcerated. The county’s new DA, George Gascón, part of the wave of left-leaning prosecutors seeking to rethink criminal-justice laws, has set a blanket policy of not intervening in parole hearings.

The parole recommendation split Kennedy’s surviving children, but not evenly. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has become a notorious vaccine opponent, supported parole, as did his brother Douglas Kennedy. Both appeared at the parole hearing to support Sirhan’s plea.

But six of the other seven surviving children vehemently opposed the recommendation. (Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former Maryland lieutenant governor, has not expressed a view.) None of them, though, was present at the August hearing. Asked why, Christopher said, “To tell you the truth, getting an email that says ‘Sirhan’ … in the subject line is disturbing to all of us. It just knocks you off your game; it throws you off your day; you can’t stop thinking about it … and we have developed strategies to tune out those words, that language.”

That instinct, combined with poor communication with a family friend serving as their lawyer monitoring the process, left the bulk of the children unaware until the last minute that the parole board might act last August, Christopher said. “I was blindsided by the fact that Douglas and Bobby were participating in that hearing and I was blown away by the decision of the parole panel,” he told me.

Once the board made its ruling, Christopher and the other siblings opposed to parole scrambled to make their case to Newsom, who had the final word. Two appeared on CBS Sunday Morning; two others wrote op-eds in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times opposing the decision. (Maxwell, a former prosecutor in Philadelphia who wrote the LA Times opinion, was bitterly critical of Gascón’s decision not to appear.) Several of the siblings submitted victim-impact statements to Newsom that were, as Christopher described them, “detailed and harrowing to review. They are as stark pieces of writing as probably any of us have encountered.”

Maxwell told me that freeing Sirhan now would broadcast a message that “puts public officials in peril and … puts our whole democracy in peril.” Think of all the issues, Maxwell said, that his father and, for that matter, King, had advanced in the political system, and how differently the history of the country may have unfolded because assassins silenced their voices. “If one person is allowed to prevent all of that from being debated, in return for 50 years in [prison], then what are we saying?” he said. “Literally you are putting people in danger … Public policy should never allow that.” When too many Americans already “are willing to take the risk of imprisonment … for harming people whose ideas they don’t agree with,” there was danger in signaling that 50 years is sufficient penalty for assassinating a national political leader. “Many, many people would make that trade.”

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