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Did the PLO Murder Robert Kennedy?

The issue of a possible conspiracy in the murder of Senator Robert F Kennedy in 1968 has once again been resurrected with the publication of Peter Evans's book Nemesis and the recent calls from Hollywood celebrities and magazine writers to re-open the case.*

The principal discrepancy which led to charges of conspiracy turned on the number of shots fired. Conspiracy researchers alleged they were more than the number of bullets Sirhan’s gun could hold. However, in 1995 investigative reporter Dan Moldea, a former conspiracy advocate, published the results of his investigation into the murder of Robert Kennedy in The Killing Of Robert Kennedy - An Investigation into Motive, Means and Opportunity (1995). Moldea poured over the mountain of evidence in the case. He studied the forensic and ballistic reports and interviewed scores of witnesses, including many of the police officers involved who had never been interviewed previously. What he found suggested a botched investigation involving the mishandling of physical evidence in the case, the failure to correctly interview some witnesses, the premature (but non-sinister) destruction of key pieces of physical evidence and the lack of proper procedures in securing and investigating the crime scene. Moldea successfully addressed the issues of alleged bullet holes in door frames (too small to be made by bullets) and the number of shots fired (8, not 10 as conspiracy advocates allege).

Amongst conspiracy advocates, only Peter Evans supported the argument that Sirhan likely fired the gun that killed Kennedy. Yet his allegation that Aristotle Onassis ordered the assassination is flawed. Evans alleged that Sirhan had been ordered to kill RFK by PLO official Mahmoud Hamshari. He claims to have unearthed evidence that Aristotle Onassis had given Hamshari money to direct his PLO terrorists away from his Olympic Airways airlines at a time when planes were being hijacked and that some of the money was used to hire Sirhan to kill RFK. Evans claimed that Onassis was aware of the plot and, indeed, wanted RFK eliminated so the New York Senator would not stand in the way of his marrying JFK’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.

In fact there many inconsistencies in Evans's theory. Although the author accepts the statements made by Onassis's friends and relatives that the shipping tycoon admitted he had been responsible for RFK’s murder, he contradicts himself by quoting close Onassis aides as having had trouble sorting out their bosses’ “exaggerations, half-truths and lies.”

Central to Evans's thesis are entries in Sirhan’s notebooks which purportedly connected Aristotle Onassis to the assassin. Evans alleges Sirhan’s notebooks make reference to Alexander Onassis's girlfriend Fiona, whom his father detested, and Stavros Niarchos, his shipping rival, whom he also hated. However, Evans's juxtaposition of names to prove Sirhan wrote about killing Onassis's enemies is misleading. Sirhan had placed the name FIONA in a list of racehorse names – Fiona, Jet-Spec, Kings Abbey and Prince Khaled. The Arabic script consists of one sentence “He should be killed” (not “They should be killed” as Evans alleges) and does not refer to either Niarkos or Fiona. The diary entry "Niarkos" remains unexplained, as do many other entries in Sirhan’s notebooks, but there is no indication it refers to anyone on a Sirhan Death List. The words in Sirhan’s notebooks were the result of simple stream-of-consciousness ramblings he learned from Rosicrucian literature as ways to improve his life. The notebooks are filled with names of people Sirhan knew – Bert Altfillisch, Peggy Osterkamp and Gwen Gum for example, and people he didn’t know like Garner Ted Armstrong. The entries which refer to $100,000 were simply Sirhan’s obsessions about wealth and appear a number of times in the notebooks.

Central to Evans's thesis was the implication that Sirhan had spent a three month period before the assassination being trained by terrorists or undergoing hypnotic indoctrination. Evans was wrong in stating Sirhan’s movements were unaccounted for, or "a blanket of white fog" as he put it. Sirhan’s movements in the months prior to the assassination leave no unaccountable period when the assassin could have left the country to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training or have spent a considerable amount of time being "hypnotically indoctrinated." On March 7 Sirhan left his job at a Pasadena health food store. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, he discussed the murder with Alvin Clark, a Pasadena garbage collector. Sirhan’s friend, Walter Crowe, met him in Pasadena on the night of May 2, 1968 when they discussed politics. The last time he saw Sirhan was on the Pasadena college campus on May 23, 1968. He was in Denny’s restaurant when Sirhan entered with a group of friends. This leaves only a two week period not accounted for. But Sirhan refers to local newspaper and local radio reports throughout the month of May which he could not have accessed if he had been out of the country. Besides, Sirhan was living at 696 E. Howard Street, Pasadena. Family and friends have never suggested he was missing during this period.

Conspiracy advocates, including Evans, who want to see the case re-examined allege that Sirhan’s staring at a teletype machine on the night of the murder is proof that he had been hypnotized. Yet Sirhan frequently became entranced by things around him. This was part of his make-up. In fact, this would not be the first time Sirhan had experienced "trance-like states." He experienced them as a boy growing up in Jerusalem, according to his mother.

A majority of hypnosis and mind-control experts within the scientific community dismiss the notion that subjects can be hypnotized to commit murder. They maintain that such a possibility of programming an unwitting and unwilling subject is not possible. Furthermore, there would be no guarantee of success for a "robotic assassin"; it is an erratic tool. A hypnotist can plant a suggestion in the subject’s mind and ask him to forget that suggestion but there is no foolproof way of preventing another hypnotist coming along and recovering that memory.

Additionally, there is evidence, not presented at the trial, which proves that Sirhan had been feigning amnesia. Sirhan has always proclaimed that he could not remember writing in his notebooks, “RFK must die” nor could he remember shooting Kennedy. There is, however, compelling evidence that Sirhan knew what he had done. He confessed to ACLU lawyer Abraham Lincoln Wirin that he “…did it, I shot him.” And he also told defense investigator Michael McCowan that he remembered shooting Kennedy.

Michael McCowan was a private detective who assisted Sirhan's lawyers. In the pre-trial period McCowan had been talking to Sirhan about the shooting. Sirhan had responded to a question asked by McCowan. McCowan had been startled to hear how Sirhan’s eyes had met Kennedy’s in the moment just before he shot him and before Kennedy had fully turned to his left at the time he was shaking hands with the Ambassador Hotel kitchen staff. McCowan asked Sirhan, “Then why, Sirhan, didn’t you shoot him between the eyes?” Without hesitating, Sirhan replied, “Because that son-of-a-bitch turned his head at the last second.”

If Sirhan had been lying then how was the "hypnotic defense" and Sirhan’s "amnesia defense" constructed in the first place?

Sirhan claimed his lawyers had first put forward the idea that he had been in a "hypnotic trance-like" state when he shot Kennedy. But there is evidence that Sirhan had foreknowledge of "amnesiac and disassociative states" before he committed the murder. Sirhan had read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a book about the multiple murders of a Kansas farmer, his wife and two teenage children. The murders were committed by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock in 1959 and Capote’s book of the murder, manhunt, trial and executions of the murderers was published in 1965. Sirhan identified with the short and stocky Perry Smith. He felt great empathy for Smith. Smith, a small-statured man who had suffered a deprived childhood, had bouts of shivering and trance-like states and he believed in mysticism and fate. According to Capote, Perry Smith, “….had many methods of passing [time]….among them, MIRROR GAZING…EVERY TIME [HE SAW] A MIRROR [HE WOULD] GO INTO A TRANCE” (emphasis added).

At the conclusion of Capote’s book the author quotes a team of psychiatrists who found a number of similarities in their subjects; “[The murderers] were puzzled as to why they killed their victims, who were relatively unknown to them, and in each instance the murderer appears to have lapsed into a DREAMLIKE DISSASSOCIATIVE TRANCE [emphasis added] from which he awakened to suddenly discover himself assaulting the victim…..Two of the men reported severe disassociative trancelike states during which violent and bizarre behaviour was seen, while the other two reported less severe and perhaps less well-organised, AMNESIAC EPISODES [emphasis added] ….”. It is therefore likely Sirhan had used his knowledge of how murderers behave to construct a possible diminished capacity defense.

Intriguing as Evans's thesis is, there is no credible evidence that a hypnotized Sirhan had been directed to kill Kennedy by the PLO -- apart from hearsay and second-hand accounts by a number of individuals who were close to Onassis. The record indicates that Sirhan was indeed motivated by political considerations but he was an "unaffiliated terrorist" rather than someone who had plotted with a terrorist group.

Sirhan may have been mentally unstable and angry at a society that had relegated him to the bottom of the heap but there is sufficient evidence, originating years before the shooting, that Sirhan clearly saw himself, like today’s suicide bombers, as an Arab hero. The PLO and most Palestinians certainly judged him this way. And Sirhan’s lack of remorse is entirely in keeping with the terrorist way of rationalizing political murder.

Sirhan and his brothers could not, or would not, assimilate into American society. They abhorred U.S. culture, disliked the mores of the American people and, most importantly, hated the support Americans gave to the state of Israel. The family felt they were part of a minority group alienated and misunderstood within the larger community.

As most Americans were unaware of the Palestinian issue in 1968 very few journalists examined Sirhan’s background as a Palestinian Arab in an attempt to explain the tragedy. Instead, commentators wrote Sirhan off as yet another misfit with a gun who stalks and then murders a leading public official with no apparent motive except his own demons.

The Palestinian/Arab cause is the sine que non of the assassination. As a poor working class immigrant Sirhan identified with his downtrodden people living as refugees in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The period 1967-68, the year following the Six Day War, became a crucial time in Sirhan’s life because it was the time when Israel became dominant in the region having successfully defended itself against Arab aggression. Having failed to eject the Jews from Israel/Palestine, Arabs throughout the world felt powerless and weak and Arab pride had been severely damaged. Their condition exaggerated Sirhan’s feelings of inadequacy even though he lived thousands of miles away from the conflict. Many "exiled" Palestinians, like Sirhan, sought retribution and began to formulate plans to kill innocent civilians and hijack planes. Sirhan’s answer to these problems took the form of killing a major American politician who advocated support for Israel. Sirhan said, “…this momentum just took hold of me and by June 5th 1968 [the first anniversary of the Six day War] I couldn’t control it [anger] anymore.”

To the Western mind terrorists are deranged and evil. However, their acts are not the product of insanity but possess a logic all their own. Terrorists have rational, if sometimes bizarre, motives. It is also true that many terrorists (like Al Qaeda’s Ramzi Youssef) display symptoms of a psychopathic nature – they are cold blooded and carry out their acts of terror unremorseful. But their acts are not the products of delusional or irrational minds. Nor was Sirhan’s. He did indeed crave attention and success. He was depressed that society had relegated him to the bottom of the heap.He felt an allegiance and empathy with assassins of the past. And he dreamed of infamy. But without his sense of Arabness and without his hatred towards Jews that had their roots in his childhood indoctrination, it is unlikely Sirhan would have assassinated Robert Kennedy. All the hatred that spewed forth from Sirhan’s gun can ultimately be traced back to three sources – Anti-Americanism, Palestinian nationalism and anti-Semitism. And this may have been the first act in an international political drama that culminated in 9/11.

*See John Hiscock’s "Was Robert Kennedy Killed By A Real Manchurian Candidate Style Assassin?" in the Independent (January 18, 2005) and Dominick Dunne’s article in Vanity Fair (December 2004).

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