On June 5, 1968, exactly one year after the outbreak of the Six Day War, a young Palestinian Christian man from Jerusalem attended an election victory party at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. As the party – celebrating an important primary victory of a promising and inspiring young Democratic presidential candidate – wound down, Senator Robert F. Kennedy headed out through the hotel’s rear entrance in order to avoid the large, energetic and excited crowds gathered that night to support him. Waiting in the hotel's kitchen, however, was Sirhan Sirhan, who emptied his .22 caliber revolver into the presidential hopeful.
Born in 1944, Sirhan Sirhan fled his Jerusalem home during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Soon thereafter, he and his entire family moved to the United States where he attended school, including several years at a local college. But despite his many years in the US, Sirhan’s heart remained with the Palestinian people. Following the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, he told American news program Inside Edition in a 1989 interview, he was “downcast and crestfallen.”
This Kennedy was our friend
4 Israeli embassies closed amid warnings of revenge attack
On the day of the assassination, Sirhan had spent hours firing his gun at a Los Angeles shooting range. On his way home, he stopped for a hamburger and while browsing through the Los Angeles Times, noticed an advertisement for a parade that night celebrating the anniversary of the Six Day War. Sirhan decided he would “go down there and see what they were up to.”
But he never made it to the LA Jewish community’s celebratory parade.
Instead, along the way, he discovered that Senator Robert Kennedy was
holding a victory part at the Mid-city Ambassador Hotel. At the party,
Sirhan began drinking, later admitting, “the early hours were sort of
enjoyable to me.” But he had a fateful and deadly obsession with the
presidential candidate. As Kennedy made an unplanned exit through the
kitchen heading towards the hotel’s back entrance, Sirhan waited in the
kitchen along with a sizable press contingent. He fired a total of six
shots, three of which hit the senator including one shot to his head.
Kennedy died 24 hours later in a Los Angeles hospital and was buried in
Washington’s Arlington National Cemetery near his older brother, John.
The reasons for his death were oft questioned and speculated about, but
through interviews conducted with Sirhan over the years, his motivations
Some weeks before the assassination, Kennedy had declared his support
for supplying Israel with a large quantity of fighter jets in the
aftermath of the Six Day War. The declaration was significant in several
ways. Firstly, it represented the first time the United States was
considering supplying Israel with higher quality weapons than other the
Arab states in the region. The move represented the beginning of the
US’s still-running commitment to establishing and maintaining Israel’s
Qualitative Military Edge over its neighbors. But for Sirhan, there was
yet another, personal significance to Kennedy’s declaration.
Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of assassinated US president John F.
Kennedy, had been a hero to Sirhan Sirhan. “He was my champion, he was
the defender of the downtrodden,” he later said in an interview,
believing himself to be the downtrodden that RFK had pledged to defend.
But when Sirhan heard that Kennedy was promising to supply military jets
to Israel, he felt personally betrayed. He began filling pages of his
personal journals with scribbles reading: “RFK must die.”
For many Americans at the time, Robert Kennedy had been a symbol of hope
as the country was bogged in national crisis. The United States was in
the middle of a costly and widely-opposed war in Vietnam, a bloody civil
rights movement at home, and two of the era’s most inspiring political
figures had recently been assassinated: US president John F. Kennedy had
been shot five years earlier and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. was assassinated just two months prior. Robert Kennedy, who
after winning the California Democratic primary election on June 5 was
likely headed to the White House, was running on a platform of ending US
involvement in the Vietnam War, empowering America’s poor and helping
realize the goals of the civil rights movement. The disenchanted
American public was desperate for new leadership, and they saw it in
Sirhan, however, feeling betrayed by what he described as RFK’s
hypocrisy in acting to end the Vietnam War, “and in the next breath
[sending] more bombs and Phantom jets to Israel to kill human beings –
Palestinians." He had lost the sense of hope that he himself and so many
Americans had associated with Kennedy. Sirhan later went much further
in justifying the assassination, making a bizarre comparison: “If you
were German or a Jew in Hitler's Germany and you had the opportunity to
assassinate Hitler, I’m sure that they would have tried to do that,”
saying he believed he was saving his people from destruction.
At his trial, Sirhan described his mindset as stemming from “20 years of
malice of forethought." He claimed that the emotional scars he
sustained watching his brother and others being killed during the 1948
war in Jerusalem contributed to a sense that he must act to save his
people. “Having experienced what I have experienced in Palestine,
atrocities, killings, the violence and just the uprooting of massive
populations, did have more of an impact on me than it did on others.”
Sirhan Sirhan remains in a California prison to this day.