Yesterday was exactly 40 years since Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan — a Palestinian terrorist. Kennedy was a strong supporter of Israel and so a natural target.
Sirhan, an Arab Christian born in East Jerusalem in 1944 and an immigrant to the US in 1956, was a passionate antisemite and Arab nationalist (see “Why Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy“). There is no question that Sirhan, while obviously unbalanced, knew what he was doing and did it for his cause:
During Sirhan’s trial his mother related how the intense feelings of the Palestinians remained with the family even though they had been far removed from the conflict when they immigrated to America. She told of how her family had lived in Jerusalem for “thousands of years” and she spoke of the bitterness and hatred of the Israelis who had “taken their land.” Mary Sirhan believed her son had killed Robert Kennedy because of his Arab nationalism. She said, “What he did, he did for his country…”
Following his arrest Sirhan told one of the court-appointed psychiatrists, George Y. Abe, about his political philosophy. Sirhan told him he was solidly anti-Zionist and disgusted at the way Jews in America had such a strong influence within the American political system. Sirhan said he believed Robert Kennedy listened to the Jews and he saw the senator as having sold out to them.
Sirhan’s lawyers downplayed the political reasons for the murder:
From the beginning both Sirhan’s lawyers and the U.S. media sought to portray the assassination of Robert Kennedy as the act of a deranged individual bent on seeking fame and notoriety.
The New York lawyer Emile Zola Berman, a Jew, became one of Sirhan’s lawyers and was praised for defending a Palestinian. However, he may well have been used by the defense team to prevent the political aspects of the crime from being addressed. It was Berman who advocated Sirhan’s defense be built around the plea of “diminished capacity,” to prove that Sirhan had been mentally ill. Sirhan protested and told his lawyers, “Have you ever heard the Arab side of the story?…I mean on the TV, the radio, in the mass media?…That’s what bugs me! There’s no Arab voice in America, and goddamn it, I’m gonna show ’em in that courtroom. I’m gonna really give’em hell about it.” During the trial, Sirhan repeatedly voiced his political motives but his lawyers went ahead with their trial strategy.
This parallels another, more recent case. The trial of Naveed Haq, who shot one woman to death and injured five others when he invaded Seattle’s Jewish Federation in July 2006, ended in a hung jury this week. Haq, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, was clear about his motives as well:
He spewed anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slurs during the attack while decrying the Iraq war and Israel’s 2006 conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Haq made similar comments on a video shown in the courtroom prior to the trial’s start.
According to a court memorandum, Haq told a 911 operator during his shooting rampage, “I’m not upset at the people, I’m upset at your foreign policy. These are Jews. I’m tired of getting pushed around and our people getting pushed around by the situation in the Middle East.” — JTA
But apparently one juror was convinced by defense arguments that Haq was legally insane.
These acts are irrational in the context of our society — who knows if Robert Kennedy’s death advanced the Arab cause? — but in the Middle East, where martyrdom is admired and compromise is considered emasculation, it’s another story.