Fifty-three years ago, in June 1968, 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan rocked America when he shot and killed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), then the leading contender to be his party’s presidential nominee.
Last month, the 77-year-old convicted murderer was recommended for parole by a two-member panel of the California parole board after prosecutors declined to participate in the parole proceedings or oppose his release under a “hands off” policy of the Los Angeles District Attorney. According to the parole board panel, Sirhan is no longer a threat to society.
Sen. Kennedy’s assassination occurred two months after the murder of historic civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and less than five years after the assassination of Kennedy’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy.
1968 was a year of turmoil in America. Emotions were raw over the war in Vietnam and civil rights. Americans struggled with new forms of protest and appropriate reactions to them.
And the string of brutal assassinations of political and civil rights leaders struck a significant blow to the optimism, youth and idealism of a rising generation.
For those of a certain age, the RFK killing was added to the list of “Where were you when…?” that included other historic and tragic events. And the iconic black-and-white photo of the mortally wounded Kennedy lying on the floor of a hotel kitchen just after learning he had won the California Democratic presidential primary preserved the image of grief, and extended the tragedy to countless others in the years that followed.
When the question of possible parole for Sirhan was raised last week, it seemed like an old, almost-forgotten issue was being stirred from the dust. The convicted murderer’s earlier applications for parole were denied, in part because he has never expressed full-throated remorse for what he did.
Opinions are divided over possible parole for Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem. Robert Kennedy’s adult children are divided over whether Sirhan should be released, although most have spoken out against it. And the Jewish community, too, quickly divided along center-left and center-right lines. Many who lean left have reminded us of how many years have passed since the assassination, and how the septuagenarian is unlikely to pose a threat to anyone should he be released.
Many who lean right remind us of Sirhan’s stated motivation: “All my hopes were focused on Robert Kennedy. I was his supporter,” he told interviewer David Frost in 1989. But he was concerned that Kennedy, his anti-war “savior,” supported arms for Israel — a position Sirhan could not tolerate. That anti-Israel bias leads opponents on the right to fear him receiving a hero’s welcome in Ramallah, and argue that murdering RFK because of Israel was an antisemitic act.
While parole is proper in some cases, it isn’t appropriate in all. Sirhan took the life of a dynamic, iconic leader and traumatized the nation. That lingering hurt endures. And it spurs a lack of forgiveness in many.