Thirty-five years ago, early in the morning of June 5, 1968, the United States received a stark warning about the costs of its foreign policy when New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles, just hours after he won the Democratic presidential primary in California.
That night, a young man named Sirhan Bishara Sirhan raised a cheap .22-caliber pistol in the Ambassador Hotel and aimed at Kennedy from a distance of just a few yards. When former L.A. Rams football player Rosey Grier and others tackled Sirhan as he was still firing his weapon, the shooter cried out, "I can explain." Explain what?
He also allegedly said, "I did it for my country." What country? What exactly was Sirhan trying to say? And did the United States listen?
What Americans seemed to see in the assassination was yet another political murder climaxing a decade ripped by violence: JFK, Vietnam, Watts, Detroit, Newark, Martin Luther King and now RFK. Time magazine seemed to speak for millions when it asked, "Why?" and darkly spoke of "deep doubts about the stability of America."
Time went on to state that the best way for the country to move forward was by "eradicating the conditions that trigger the assassin's finger." In an effort to do that, President Lyndon B. Johnson quickly appointed a commission to investigate violence in the U.S. and asked Congress for gun control legislation.
These were real issues, to be sure, but were they the only ones? What was Sirhan trying to explain?
In fact, Robert Kennedy's murder offered another, utterly different lesson that the nation completely failed to absorb, a lesson about Palestinian anger. The Robert Kennedy assassination was the first case of Middle Eastern "terrorism" here at home -- decades before the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, decades before Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda became household names.
Sirhan was a Palestinian whose parents had fled their home in West Jerusalem as refugees during the first Arab-Israeli war, in 1948, when he was 4 years old. Raised first in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and later in Pasadena, Sirhan grew up deeply embittered about Israel and the plight of his fellow Palestinian refugees.
Sen. Kennedy, by contrast, admired the Israelis, a feeling that dated from his days as a young correspondent for the Boston Post covering the war in Palestine in 1948. Sirhan's early support for Kennedy turned to hatred after the senator advocated the sale of advanced F-4 Phantom jets to Israel in the wake of the 1967 war in the Middle East, a war that also signaled the growing U.S. support for the Jewish state.
Sirhan's diaries revealed the depth of his swelling anger when they recorded, "RFK must die!"
Kennedy was shot one year to the day after Israel launched the 1967 war.
Although most Americans quickly became aware after the assassination that Sirhan was an Arab (he was referred to as a "Jordanian" citizen), the source of his rage was not clearly explained in most stories. In those days few people even knew what a "Palestinian" was -- Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said shortly afterward that there was "no such thing" as a Palestinian people and that "they did not exist" -- and even fewer understood their grievances.
The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the Israelis was barely a year old, and the Palestine Liberation Organization would not be taken over by Yasser Arafat until a year later. The hijackings and killings that would bring the Palestinians to the center of the world stage had not yet begun.
Did we miss an important, early opportunity to draw important conclusions about the political backlash we might experience as a result of U.S. policy in the Middle East? Sirhan may have been mentally unstable -- and there was plenty of testimony at his trial to suggest as much -- but he clearly saw himself, as today's suicide bombers see themselves, as fighting for the Palestinian people. It also seems clear that Sirhan's fellow Palestinians became convinced after the assassination that high-profile violence might advance their cause and put the name Palestinian into the headlines: One month later, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked its first plane, an Israeli passenger jet; 14 months after that, the front hijacked its first American plane.
Some Palestinians clearly saw Sirhan as a hero; in February 1973, when members of the Black September organization seized (and eventually killed) American hostages at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum, one of their demands was the release of Sirhan.
Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda operatives who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon decades later were, like Sirhan, Arabs motivated by anger at American foreign policy toward the Middle East. But today, as in 1968, Americans seem to obfuscate this political motivation by focusing on what our leaders insist are broader cultural reasons for the attacks.
The president and the secretary of State quickly called the terrorist strikes an "attack on civilization" and assaults "on democracy." In dodging any political motivations for 9/11, our leaders are doing us a great disservice at this crucial time by leading us down the same path of delusion as when many Americans de-politicized Robert Kennedy's murder 35 years ago.
The roots of terrorism, like those of crime, are complex. They require an appreciation of the complexities and interconnectedness of the modern world. I fear that once again the nation is missing an opportunity to address the hard questions posed by violent acts associated with its role in the Middle East. Who knows where we might be today if we had learned different lessons from the tragedy of June 1968? Have we already missed the lesson of September 2001 by invading Afghanistan and now Iraq?