Was Robert Kennedy an Early Casualty in the Terrorism War?

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Mr. Schmitt is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Marquette University.

While the Bush administration has drawn parallels between the Kennedy Justice Department's pursuit of organized crime and its own handling of the war on terrorism, sadly, the more apt historical invocation of Robert Kennedy pertains to the apparent motives surrounding his murder. If Kennedy was not the victim of a worldwide conspiracy by an evil mastermind, his assassin, Palestinian-American Sirhan Sirhan, was driven by some of the same hatreds and fears that led to the attacks last September.

According to author Dan Moldea, Sirhan had witnessed villages in Jordan destroyed in the fighting between Arabs and Jews as a child. While Sirhan was raised as a Christian and not as a Muslim, his bitterness toward Israel lingered. He and his family became political refugees, coming to America in the mid-1950s. Sirhan had trouble adjusting to American culture and grew resentful of his inability to succeed in his new home. Whether his decision to kill the New York Senator in 1968 was a product of psychosis, the desire to make a political statement, or more likely, some combination of both, is not the most important consideration. Like the hijackers of September 11, Sirhan professed that Kennedy's support for Israel, reflected in a recent newspaper photograph of RFK wearing a yarmulke, was the reason for his action."(He) must be sacrificed for the cause of the poor exploited people," Sirhan scrawled in his notebook.


The young Jordanian could have chosen a far less sympathetic target. Indeed Kennedy, like nearly all politicians of national visibility in his era and since, supported Israel. He developed a deep admiration for the courage of that nation while working as a journalist there in the 1950s. Nevertheless, when he emerged as a high-profiled leader in the Senate, Kennedy became a forceful advocate for increasing foreign aid and attention to the poor in underdeveloped nations.

In a commencement speech at Fordham University one year before his death, Kennedy discussed the problems in Arab nations, whose people were"largely illiterate, wracked by disease and poverty, without education and organization to enrich their harsh desert lands." While he was aware of the exploitation in which Western nations had engaged, Kennedy also blamed irresponsible Arab leaders who had funneled what wealth oil in the region had generated into palaces and Cadillacs, and turned the frustration of their people toward the West."Still," he continued,"we can recognize the deep needs of development for the entire Near East - that all the desert should bloom as Israel has shown it can...As Pope Paul said in his great encyclical: 'The new name for peace is development.'" Kennedy challenged the United States to increase its commitment to those suffering abroad. He saw a revolution brewing among the developing countries of the world that had been dominated by the West:"We live in a country where people diet - but most of the world starves,,,therefore this revolution is directed against us - against the successful and the rich and the mighty, against the established order of which we are the principal part."

Certainly Robert Kennedy would not have seen the violence of September 11 as justified. Still, he interpreted the rioting in Watts and other cities in the 1960s as grave warnings to be heeded - not in the willingness to reward criminal behavior, but in the recognition that social and economic oppression had toxic by-products resistant to exhortations toward personal responsibility.

Kennedy's own death did not serve as a sufficient warning of Middle Eastern tensions, and perhaps the Palestinian-American serving a life sentence for his assassination was haunted more by his own demons than the policies of the United States. Nonetheless, the temptation of disaffected leaders abroad to cast the United States as the great"other" at the root of all their problems, in the name of religion or otherwise, is too strong and too dangerous to make foreign policy unmindful of its appeal in the wake of 9-11.

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Ralph E. Luker - 3/29/2005

Mr. Troublion, Terrorism didn't begin with 9/11. As a form of countervailing action, it has a long history before then. Haymarket, anarchism, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the bombings that led to the Red Scare of 1919? Even as a form of action taken by Arabs or Muslims against western symbols of power, it has a substantial history before 9/11. Or did you miss the 1990s?

Ed Schmitt - 1/9/2003

Kennedy was in Israel in 1948, not the 1950s. I apologize for this error.

Pierre Troublion - 4/20/2002

This is a thoughtful and informative essay, but the title is ridiculous. Is assassination now too just another form of terrorism ? Where will this bold revisionist assault lead us ? I suppose there is evidence that John Wilkes Booth used Arabic numerals and, who knows, maybe Brutus was jealous of Caeser's success with Cleopatra, but the "terrorism war", if it makes any sense at all, is very much a contemporary creature whose pre-September-11th origins do not encompass every instance of anti-American violence or every crack-pot from the Middle East.

Ed Schmitt - 2/21/2002

Mr. Briggs - I appreciate your fair critique. Assassination/crime history is the worst sort of mess for a historian to get into. If human motive is hard to decipher in even the most run-of-the-mill endeavors, it is that much harder in the murky world of criminal behavior, especially if the criminal is still alive and hopes to be paroled one day! Nevertheless, just because Kennedy made many bitter enemies for other reasons does not make it more likely, based on the existing evidence, that these were more likely motives for his assassination. I also appreciate that Mr. Moldea does not have a spotless record as an impartial and judicious scholar (to be kind). Still, I find the case he builds with regard to Sirhan's motives convincing, as does Gerald Posner, among the most respectable of "assassination scholars." In the absence of evidence for a more convincing motive, I think my argument that Sirhan's act rose out of the same matrix of cultural disaffection with the United States and concern for his ethnic brethren that seems to have driven the hijackers. Clearly there are differences, but I find the similarities compelling.

Michael Briggs - 2/20/2002

It's an interesting idea but I think the suggestion that RFK was an early casualty in the "Terrorism War" is an enormous stretch that ignores far more compelling reasons for why someone would want to get rid of the likely winner of the 1968 presidential race. MB

R. B. Bernstein - 2/20/2002

This is a disturbing and valuable article. God help us.

Bob Schmitt - 2/19/2002

Terrorism is easily spawned by poverty and greed. Too bad that the angels and referees are the victims. This article seems to be a bell that is ringing for attention to take heed of the "toxic byproducts that lead to a 9-11"