Blogs > Cliopatria > Patricia Lambert: Review of Mel Ayton's The Forgotten Terrorist: Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (Potomac Books, May 2007)

Jul 11, 2007 5:01 am


Patricia Lambert: Review of Mel Ayton's The Forgotten Terrorist: Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (Potomac Books, May 2007)



Patricia Lambert is the author of False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison’s Investigation and Oliver Stone's Film JFK and is currently working on a biography of Clay Shaw.

The title of this book, The Forgotten Terrorist, is an inspired one, not because the country has actually forgotten Sirhan Sirhan—the twenty-four-year-old Palestinian immigrant and Pasadena resident who gunned down Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968 on the night of his victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary—but because few (if any) ever considered Sirhan a terrorist.

Nevertheless, Mel Ayton, the author of this easy-to-read, information-packed study, draws on the work of various experts to make his case that Sirhan was a terrorist, the “unaffiliated” variety who acts on his own volition and is not part of any terrorist or extremist group. One expert predicts that “such loners will pose the greatest threat to the security of the United States.” (1)

Building on the earlier work of writers Robert Blair Kaiser and Dan Moldea, Ayton has produced a significant book with original and detailed information and analyses regarding Sirhan’s life, motivation and psychology (2), as well as the crime itself, which includes new forensic evidence published in three appendices. (3)

Ayton has cast a wide net with his narrative encompassing the origins of the subjects he addresses, whether it be the glittering past of the Ambassador Hotel, the dark roots of the “profound pathology” in the Arab world concerning the “glory” of death, the events leading up to the fateful partitioning of Palestine, or the source of the hate that permeated Sirhan’s psyche.

That depth of research gives the reader a sense of time and place and, especially where the Middle East is concerned, valuable insights, sometimes fascinating, almost always alarming. For in telling his story, Ayton has indirectly addressed the cultural divide separating the Arab and Western worlds. Born in the former, Sirhan, from the age of twelve, lived unhappily in the latter.

The Sirhans were a Christian Arab family, but Sirhan would abandon that faith and become “a very intense atheist.” To at least one high school friend he “expressed violent hatred for Israel”; in college he was remembered for his virulent Arab nationalism and hatred for Jews. “The goal of Palestinian nationalism,” Ayton notes, “according to pro-Palestinian academic Edward Said, ‘was based on driving all Israelis out.’ ” (4)

Robert Kennedy’s support for Israel dated from his stint as a journalist in 1948 when he traveled to the Middle East for the Boston Post to cover the Arab-Israeli war. That experience left him with an abiding admiration for the Israeli people and their leaders. He repeatedly voiced his support for Israel during his 1968 presidential campaign, though Sirhan apparently was unaware of that at first. But on May 27th a local Pasadena newspaper, avidly read by the Sirhan family, carried an article concerning the speech Kennedy had given the day before in Portland at a Jewish temple. The accompanying picture of Kennedy wearing a yarmulke carried the caption “Bobby Says Shalom.” A clipping of an earlier column from this same newspaper, regarding Kennedy’s alleged contradictory positions on Vietnam and Israel, was in Sirhan’s pocket the night of the shooting. (5)

“I did it for my country,” Sirhan said when he was arrested. “But America either didn’t listen,” Ayton writes, “or failed to understand. As Yitzak Rabin, Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the time said, ‘The American people were so dazed by what they perceived as a senseless act of a madman that they could not begin to fathom its political significance.’ ” Meanwhile, Sirhan’s murder of Robert Kennedy “was embraced, condoned, and applauded throughout the Arab world.” (6)

After reading this compelling, comprehensive work, the truth about this case seems obvious. Sirhan Sirhan, the product of what Ayton refers to as “the poisoned chalice” of Palestine, psychologically damaged by his childhood experiences in the Arab-Israeli conflict, indoctrinated in school at a young age in Arab-Palestinian nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, emotionally arrested by an abusive family life, a not very “bright” student and failure at college, a failure at his desired vocation, unsuccessful with girls, hating the country that sheltered him, longing for self-esteem and seeking a sense of identity, embraced the “Arab-Palestinian cause,” identified by Ayton as the sine qua non of the assassination; by killing Robert Kennedy, Sirhan obliterated his own insignificance and became the “hero” he always wanted to be.(7) All that and more seems obvious.

Yet for many of Robert Kennedy’s supporters, like this writer, who were residing in Los Angeles and engaged in the political process, and experienced the events at the Ambassador in a visceral way, little of what we now know actually happened there seemed obvious at the time. What did seem obvious was the possibility that Sirhan was part of a larger domestic plot.

Conspiracy thinking had flourished nationwide during the previous two years when the first books and articles critical of the Warren Report’s conclusions were published. Those living in Los Angeles may have been especially vulnerable to conspiracy ideas since several first generation Warren Report critics resided there. Also, the shocking pronouncements from New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (that a conspiracy had taken President Kennedy’s life and he knew the identity of the real killers) were widely reported by the local media. Only seven months before the California primary, Garrison had visited the city and delivered one of the most astonishing speeches ever voiced by an elected government official, essentially suggesting that President Lyndon Johnson played a role in President Kennedy’s death. A verbatim transcript of his remarks was published in the alternative Los Angeles Free Press. (8)

Linking that pre-existing conspiracy mindset to Robert Kennedy’s shooting required but a small step. One commonly held theory was that Robert Kennedy was killed because he suspected a conspiracy had taken his brother’s life and, if elected president, was planning to reopen the investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination. Unfortunately, some still believe that theory, and a recent book has given it new life. (9)

But even if it were true, what Robert Kennedy suspected four decades ago is not necessarily what he would believe were he alive today. Had he survived, been elected president and reopened that investigation, the probability is high that he eventually would have reached the same conclusion the Warren Commission reached, just as many others who once were conspiracy advocates have done.

The Tipping Point is more than the title of a book; it is a genuine phenomenon. What appears impossible sometimes happens. The Berlin Wall came down. The Soviet Union dissolved the Communist Party. Communist China adopted capitalist ways.

So those who despair of the country ever freeing itself from the debilitating morass of the conspiracy mindset should take heart. It is books like this splendid one from Mel Ayton that will hasten the day.

Notes

1. The Forgotten Terrorist, pp. 228, 229.
2. See especially, Chapters 3, 10-12.
3. “Report on RFK’s Wounds by Ballistic Expert Larry Sturdivan,” refuting claims that the autopsy report proved a second gunman was involved,” pp.271-275; “Analysis of ‘The Pruszynski Tape’ by Acoustics Expert Philip Harrison,” that concludes only eight shots (matching the number of bullets Sirhan’s gun held) were fired during the shooting. (This is a “previously undisclosed audio recording of the shots fired in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel”), pp. 277-280; “Excerpts from Sirhan Sirhan’s Notebooks,” illustrating points the author discusses throughout the text, pp. 281-284.
4. The Forgotten Terrorist,” pp. 220 (atheist); 57 (“Israel”); 61 (“Jews”); 36 (“was based on”). Quoting Alan Dershowitz and a former State Department employee, Ayton suggests that the failure of the Arab world to assimilate the Palestinian refugees was deliberate, that the wretched conditions of the refugees “kept alive a very visible grievance” and served as a “smokescreen for the real Arab agenda: the elimination of Jews and the Jewish state,” pp. 35, 36.
5. Id., pp. 31, 40-42 (“Arab-Israeli war”), 46, (“Pasadena newspaper.”) Much has been made of Kennedy’s advocating the sale of fifty Phantom jets to Israel in a June 1st speech; Sirhan did learn of that from his mother who heard Kennedy’s address on the radio, but it seems less important than the local newspaper’s article and photograph.
6. Id., pp. 83 (“for my country”); 9 (“Yitzak Rabin”); 260 (“Arab world”).
7. Id., p. 259.
8. Garrison’s “pronouncements,” see Patricia Lambert, False Witness (New York: M. Evans & Co.) 1999, p. 58; “transcript”, The Los Angeles Free Press, November 17, 1967.
9. Writer David Talbot, author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, recently expressed part of that view on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC television program “Hardball.” “Bobby Kennedy thought that elements of his own government were involved in the assassination of his own brother,” Talbot said, “. . .That’s why Bobby Kennedy was determined to run for the presidency, so he could open up the investigation with the power of the White House.” “Hardball” transcript, May 29, 2007, p. 9.

Notes

1. Ibid., 228, 229.
2. See especially, Chapters 3, 10-12.
3. “Report on RFK’s Wounds by Ballistic Expert Larry Sturdivan,” refuting claims that the autopsy report proved a second gunman was involved,” pp.271-275; “Analysis of ‘The Pruszynski Tape’ by Acoustics Expert Philip Harrison,” that concludes only eight shots (matching the number of bullets Sirhan’s gun held) were fired during the shooting. (This is a “previously undisclosed audio recording of the shots fired in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel”), pp. 277-280; “Excerpts from Sirhan Sirhan’s Notebooks,” illustrating points the author discusses throughout the text, pp. 281-284.
4. The Forgotten Terrorist,” pp. 220 (atheist); 57 (“Israel”); 61 (“Jews”); 36 (“was based on”). Quoting Alan Dershowitz and a former State Department employee, Ayton suggests that the failure of the Arab world to assimilate the Palestinian refugees was deliberate, that the wretched conditions of the refugees “kept alive a very visible grievance” and served as a “smokescreen for the real Arab agenda: the elimination of Jews and the Jewish state,” pp. 35, 36.
5. Id., pp. 31, 40-42 (“Arab-Israeli war”), 46, (“Pasadena newspaper.”) Much has been made of Kennedy’s advocating the sale of fifty Phantom jets to Israel in a June 1st speech; Sirhan did learn of that from his mother who heard Kennedy’s address on the radio, but it seems less important than the local newspaper’s article and photograph.
6. Id., pp. 83 (“for my country”); 9 (“Yitzak Rabin”); 260 (“Arab world”).
7. Id., p. 259.
8. Garrison’s “pronouncements,” see Patricia Lambert, False Witness (New York: M. Evans & Co.) 1999, p. 58; “transcript”, The Los Angeles Free Press, November 17, 1967.
9. Writer David Talbot, author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, recently expressed part of that view on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC television program “Hardball.” “Bobby Kennedy thought that elements of his own government were involved in the assassination of his own brother,” Talbot said, “. . .That’s why Bobby Kennedy was determined to run for the presidency, so he could open up the investigation with the power of the White House.” “Hardball” transcript, May 29, 2007, p. 9.


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