Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian

Convicted of murdering Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Sirhan Sirhan is one of those rare figures whose name everyone knows, but whom nobody much discusses.  Recently, however, he has been in the news again. 

I remember being a kid, maybe an early teenager, sitting at the table with my father.  He was cheerful that afternoon, a rare occasion in those days.  He was my hero, but my insistence on doing poorly in school had caused lots of strain and we spent much of our time at loggerheads.  He greeted rebellion with even more severe punishment.  My father was kind and decent, but relentlessly confident in his idea of discipline. 

But on that afternoon we were relaxed.  We connected well through my burgeoning curiosity about the world, the Middle East in particular.  It was before the internet and satellite TV, and dad hated talking on the phone, especially long distance (which was expensive in the old days), yet he always seemed to know what was going on back home.  We were nibbling at nuts and olives and chitchatting without any of the usual tension. 

I mentioned Sirhan Sirhan, whom I’d recently learned about from a news story.  I thought it was hilarious that he had the same first and last name. 

“He’s an Arab, you know,” my father said.  His tone was one of both dignity and regret. 

“He is?” 

“From Palestine.” 

“I didn’t know that.” 

“A Christian, too.” 

Same tone. 

Wait a minute, I thought.  My family matches those descriptions and we didn’t seem like the kind of people who assassinate politicians.  It was confusing.  I had a decent awareness of my ethnic background, but my parents didn’t dispense any kind of cultural instruction.  We were what we were.  Suddenly I didn’t know what the hell that was.  Our daily rituals and ways of being didn’t come out of a manual.  “Arab” was more or less an external category. 

Thus my confusion.  Why, for starters, were Arabs always in the news for doing terrible things?  I learned some years later that corporate media coverage is more terrible than the behavior. 

Almost three decades on, having developed a more sophisticated understanding of identity and experience, I was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois.  The reason:  advocacy for Palestine.  There was a lot more advocacy for Palestine in the USA in 2014 than in 1968, but it was still seen as a great peril to American values.  

Overseeing the circus was UIUC Chair of the Board of Trustees, Christopher Kennedy, son of Robert.  He was completely inflexible.  He refused to undo the decision despite tons of negative press and an incoming lawsuit.  It was easy to attribute the inflexibility to typical class politics.  Kennedy was a wealthy man—royalty in a supposedly anti-royal country—and served at the pleasure of politicians and big-money donors.  But it wasn’t lost on some observers that another factor might have informed his hostility. 

“If you think about it,” a colleague suggested to me one day in a whisper, “he probably hates Palestinians.” 

That possibility had occurred to me.  Sirhan Sirhan and I, after all, share an identity. 

He is 77 now.  His skin is tan and smooth and his hair is the distinctive shade of silver that fits so nicely on elderly Middle Eastern men.  It is cut short with a clean part.  His hairline is struggling but he isn’t bald.  He looks like a kindly jiddo or maybe a retired social studies teacher.  He certainly doesn’t look like a murderer. 

But there’s something troubled about his eyes.  They are jittery, glazed with hesitation.  It might be the natural outcome of being in prison for over five decades or it might be a physical manifestation of psychological ambivalence.  Whatever the case, this strange something is perceptible.  Sirhan Sirhan doesn’t seem fully present, at least on camera. 

Sirhan Sirhan at 77

It is easy to imagine him having been hypnotized the night of Kennedy’s murder, as some claim.  He had the same troubled look at 24, when he became infamous, but back then he was darker, swarthy, with a healthy thatch of jet-black hair.  He looked like the prototype of a Hollywood villain. 

I wonder if he did it.  He claims to wonder the same thing.  Over the years, all kinds of strange information has emerged about RFK’s assassination.  Sirhan may have been a patsy for the CIA’s MKULTRA mind-control program (along with his future neighbor at California’s Corcoran Prison, Charles Manson).  He possibly got bamboozled by a honeypot.  He was certainly drunk, or at least properly buzzed.  For whatever reason, he simply doesn’t remember the decisive moment when he opened fire in the vicinity of RFK.  Psychologists don’t think he’s faking the amnesia. 

A few years ago, I began reading about the assassination and came to believe that the official version of the story is unsound.  No foolproof theory exists, but a lot of convincing evidence indicates that there was another gunman in the pantry in which RFK was murdered.  Combined with Sirhan’s spotty memory and a CIA up to its eyeballs in evil, it’s no act of tinfoil conspiracism to suggest that there was more to the assassination than the spontaneous meltdown of an aggrieved Palestinian. 

I don’t obsess over the details, though.  I read enough about the event and its many ambiguities to form a comfortable opinion and so the endless factoids and speculation concern me less than the effects of that event on my generation of Arab Americans. 

It’s possible that the event had no effect at all, that it is meaningful to me only because of a random conversation with my father.  Our brains are funny that way.  We can forget spectacular incidents and remember banalities that come to be deeply consequential.  Taking stock of the past suggests forgetfulness.  I never heard the name “Sirhan Sirhan” at any of the Palestine solidarity events or academic conferences I attended.  I rarely thought about him, either.  He wasn’t much a subject of debate or inquiry for Arab Americans in general or Palestinian Americans in particular.  As’ad Abukhalil used to discuss him sometimes on the now-defunct Angry Arab Blog and some radical groups in Palestine clamored for his release in the 1970s, but by and large Sirhan Sirhan isn’t a subject of analysis among Arab Americans.  Still, he’s always been around even when he wasn’t present.  Sirhan Sirhan is a momentous nonentity. 

I suppose that Sirhan, or what we understand through various historical filters to be Sirhan, represents some complicated and uncomfortable conditions for Arab Americans.  We can identify with his deeply-felt anguish about Palestine.  We can empathize when he speaks of his brother’s death in childhood.  We can believe that the government would railroad somebody of his background.  We can see in him so many characteristics of paternal authority. 

We can also recognize that in being named Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan became the essential, inescapable Arab in the United States:  mysterious, violent, irrational.  The Palestinian cause has always been a tough sell in this country, a settler colony in which Zionism is completely legible, and it was practically verboten amid the triumphalism of Israel’s victory in the June 1967 War.  Sirhan stepped into the spotlight and validated every negative belief about Palestinians and Arabs precisely when the negativity was most needed.  He was us no matter how much we tried to create distance.  Those who manage the war economy wouldn’t have it any other way. 

And now, nearly six decades on, we’re ready to acknowledge him again, this quiet, elderly man whose continued imprisonment has come to seem rather cruel, or at the very least archaic. 

He is in the news again because after 15 failed attempts he finally made parole.  His release isn’t guaranteed because California governor Gavin Newsom still needs to approve the parole board’s decision and is under heavy pressure to decline.  If Sirhan is released, he might immediately be deported to Jordan. 

The parole decision stirred up a lot of repressed sympathy for Sirhan among Palestinian and Arab Americans, who largely welcomed the news.  Also pleased were anti-carceral activists, proponents of mercy and forgiveness, advocates for criminal justice reform, and believers in Sirhan’s innocence. 

A lot of pundits were mortified, however.  Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe in particular appeared deeply affected, with a message for Newsom to ignore two of Kennedy’s children:  “The plea by two of RFK’s sons to release Sirhan Sirhan should count for nothing. RFK’s assassination was a crime against the people of California and America, not just against the Kennedy family. Justice and the safety of potential future victims aren’t theirs to give away.” 

Tribe changed course after six of Kennedy’s other children, including Christopher, came out against parole:  “Governor Newsom: PLEASE LISTEN TO THESE SIX CHILDREN OF BOBBY KENNEDY. THEY WERE AMONG THE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF SIRHAN SIRHAN’S INNOCENT VICTIMS. JUSTICE IS NOW IN YOUR HANDS.” 

Tribe elicited hundreds of like-minded responders bemoaning everything that Sirhan had taken from them and their beloved polity.  Those complicated feelings I had years ago came into focus:  Sirhan Sirhan wasn’t merely an assassin; he was a filthy Arab who had prevented America from realizing its potential.  Along with other core groups, Arabs carry the onus of the American liberal’s perpetual frustration: an unfulfilled sense of messianism guides this peculiar political creature.  Arabs disrupt the natural order of things.  The neverending conflict, the misogyny, the dictators, the superstitions, the suicide bombs, the greedy oil sheikhs.  Those Arabs, senseless and incessant, keep forcing us into an aggression that is anathema to our enlightened sensibilities.  How much easier would American democracy have been without these savage inconveniences? 

There is a flipside to Tribe’s grievances that hardly anyone asks:  what about the U.S. government’s innocent victims?  Merely raising the question abdicates the liberal’s devotion to exceptionalism and so it is not ignored of negligence, but of necessity. 

Can Sirhan be considered a victim of the U.S. government?  Yes, as can all victims of the nakba, which Sirhan suffered as a young child.  Those of Tribe’s mentality cannot fathom the possibility because to them the nakba is at best a nonevent, and more probably a laudable force of progress.  Palestinians like Sirhan are an impediment to the liberal’s ideal society. 

Old Arab architecture in Sirhan’s childhood neighborhood of Musrara, Jerusalem, now under Zionist jurisdiction.

What happens, though, if we take Sirhan’s trauma seriously?  The United States is suddenly implicated in a terrible violence that precedes Sirhan’s encounter with Kennedy.  Sirhan is suddenly no longer a crazed loner but a participant in elaborate and unsettled histories.  And suddenly no superstar politician is going to save a United States that has never practiced democracy without inflicting misery on surplus populations inside its own borders and around the world. 

We cannot therefore take Sirhan Sirhan’s trauma seriously. 

He has spoken of the settlers who stole his home, of his mother’s anguish, of uprooted lives, of dead bodies.  He has wept over the suffering and privation he witnessed.  His childhood hardship has earned more scorn than sympathy.  The audience’s loss is more important.  By stealing their future, Sirhan forfeited his past.  They demand explanations, but carefully patrol for any hint of the unsuggestible. We are damned by voice.  We are damned by silence. 

People writing about Kennedy or Sirhan should come to realize that they are dealing in abstractions.  The two men are neither dead nor alive, not in the public imagination, anyway.  They symbolize antagonistic civilizational ideals, the timeless hero and antihero.  Both are emblems of American virtue:  Kennedy in his homegrown brilliance, youthful and telegenic; Sirhan in his foreignness, hirsute and sinister.  We rarely view the two men as byproducts of an interconnected, even intimate, politics. 

I try to think through the abstractions and consider them as actual people, for Kennedy no more held the secret to U.S. salvation than Sirhan facilitated its decline.  For me, considering Kennedy as a person means viewing him through a prism of fatherhood and so inevitably I think about his children.  It doesn’t surprise me that they’re split over Sirhan’s parole.  Siblings are known for epic disagreement.  The oldest, Robert Jr., considers Sirhan innocent; the second youngest, Douglas, supports Sirhan’s release on grounds of compassion.  Six others deem Sirhan guilty and want him to die in prison.  The ninth living child, Kathleen, has made no public comment. 

Although I adamantly support Sirhan’s release, on various grounds, I cannot take issue with the six children who oppose it.  Theirs is a filial point of view that feels too visceral and sensitive for my opinion.  I have no idea how I would react to pleas for relief from a person who killed my father.  Even if a sibling cast doubt on the perpetrator’s guilt, I don’t have a clear sense of how I would actually react as opposed to how I like to imagine my reaction.  I simply cannot inhabit the position. 

The filial paradigm isn’t private, though.  RFK has long been an ideological nostrum, the parental surrogate of a fallen nation.  A distinct idea of America bled out with him in the Ambassador Hotel.  In its wake, an illiberal and regressive force emerged.  It started with Nixon and continued through Reagan and ended up at Donald Trump.  Sirhan Sirhan, another dark object in this Manichean universe, allowed it all to happen. 

We look for saviors and end up finding villains.  The United States, an experiment with so much promise, never quite lives up to the billing.  The liberal dreamer is always aggrieved, his satisfaction foiled at the most inopportune time by foreigners, leftists, and sundry undesirables so rudely interfering with a straightforward destiny. 

I take an accounting of my life:  born in Appalachia to immigrant parents; relentlessly bullied; uninterested in the American dream.  In time the uninterest would evolve into hostility.  The hostility was helped into existence by the discomfort of my upbringing.  My foreignness was conspicuous.  I saw violence in the ideals that supposedly made us exceptional.  I became extremely suspicious of orthodoxy. 

There were no heroes to consult, really, because those who would have satisfied my preferences were unavailable to American children.  I had to rely on the unglamorous company of siblings and parents.  They at least offered a sense of security.  To this day I can’t bear to interact with people I perceive as untrustworthy.  This reticence has been a terrible impediment to my career. 

My hometown of Bluefield. West Virginia in the foreground; Virginia in the distance. (Photo: Grubb, Melvin, "Fog over East River Mt., 1993." (1993). 0227: Marshall University Regional Photograph Collection.)
My hometown of Bluefield. West Virginia in the foreground; Virginia in the distance. (Photo: Grubb, Melvin, “Fog over East River Mt., 1993.” (1993). 0227: Marshall University Regional Photograph Collection.)

In time the great figures fall away and we are left with the daily intimacies of conflict and affection.  We don’t always get to choose what moves us.  Memory isn’t calibrated to reproduce fleeting notions of social virtue.  We are organisms trying to survive.  Sometimes we find comfort or familiarity in the phenomena we’re supposed to abhor.  Arab Americans never had the luxury to uncritically claim U.S. heroes as our own.  We are related to half-people whose inhumanity is fundamental to America’s reverent self-image.  Our intimacies are no less meaningful, though. 

I can’t help that Sirhan Sirhan provided one of the nicest memories I have of conversing with my father. 

They always mention that he’s Palestinian.  Even when I don’t know the intent, the effect is clear.  Being Palestinian implies disrepute.  It suggests violence.  Sirhan Sirhan might not look like a murderer, but he sounds like one. 

The habit always nagged at me.  It’s not unique to Sirhan.  We know the ethnicity or nationality of many notorious figures.  It seems more pronounced and insidious with Sirhan, though.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a news story that doesn’t call him Palestinian.  The description explains what might otherwise be an incomprehensible deed while encouraging the audience to scuttle any empathy for Palestine.  The story of Kennedy’s assassination is incomplete without an accounting of Zionist atrocities and yet for decades corporate media have left Israel out of it in order to pursue a lazy narrative of Palestinian barbarity. 

We’ve spent lots of time thinking about what Sirhan owes the Kennedys and the country they represent, but maybe it’s time for Americans think about what they owe Sirhan’s compatriots.  Untold Palestinians have fallen to assassins’ bullets supplied by the United States.  Palestine was always set up as the origin of Sirhan’s irrationality.  Now, thanks to decades of thankless and largely anonymous efforts, a great many people recognize Palestine as a victim of the United States.  What is supposed to be an incriminating descriptor acts more and more like an invitation to contemplate a deeper story. 

Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian.  These days it really doesn’t sound so bad. 

This article was originally published on Steven Salaita’s website on September 16, 2021.

Steven Salaita
Steven Salaita’s most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.

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