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Was Robert Kennedy an Early Casualty in the Terrorism War?

While the Bush administration has drawn parallels between the Kennedy Justice Department's pursuit of organized crime and its own handling of the war on terrorism, sadly, the more apt historical invocation of Robert Kennedy pertains to the apparent motives surrounding his murder. If Kennedy was not the victim of a worldwide conspiracy by an evil mastermind, his assassin, Palestinian-American Sirhan Sirhan, was driven by some of the same hatreds and fears that led to the attacks last September.

According to author Dan Moldea, Sirhan had witnessed villages in Jordan destroyed in the fighting between Arabs and Jews as a child. While Sirhan was raised as a Christian and not as a Muslim, his bitterness toward Israel lingered. He and his family became political refugees, coming to America in the mid-1950s. Sirhan had trouble adjusting to American culture and grew resentful of his inability to succeed in his new home. Whether his decision to kill the New York Senator in 1968 was a product of psychosis, the desire to make a political statement, or more likely, some combination of both, is not the most important consideration. Like the hijackers of September 11, Sirhan professed that Kennedy's support for Israel, reflected in a recent newspaper photograph of RFK wearing a yarmulke, was the reason for his action."(He) must be sacrificed for the cause of the poor exploited people," Sirhan scrawled in his notebook.


The young Jordanian could have chosen a far less sympathetic target. Indeed Kennedy, like nearly all politicians of national visibility in his era and since, supported Israel. He developed a deep admiration for the courage of that nation while working as a journalist there in the 1950s. Nevertheless, when he emerged as a high-profiled leader in the Senate, Kennedy became a forceful advocate for increasing foreign aid and attention to the poor in underdeveloped nations.

In a commencement speech at Fordham University one year before his death, Kennedy discussed the problems in Arab nations, whose people were"largely illiterate, wracked by disease and poverty, without education and organization to enrich their harsh desert lands." While he was aware of the exploitation in which Western nations had engaged, Kennedy also blamed irresponsible Arab leaders who had funneled what wealth oil in the region had generated into palaces and Cadillacs, and turned the frustration of their people toward the West."Still," he continued,"we can recognize the deep needs of development for the entire Near East - that all the desert should bloom as Israel has shown it can...As Pope Paul said in his great encyclical: 'The new name for peace is development.'" Kennedy challenged the United States to increase its commitment to those suffering abroad. He saw a revolution brewing among the developing countries of the world that had been dominated by the West:"We live in a country where people diet - but most of the world starves,,,therefore this revolution is directed against us - against the successful and the rich and the mighty, against the established order of which we are the principal part."

Certainly Robert Kennedy would not have seen the violence of September 11 as justified. Still, he interpreted the rioting in Watts and other cities in the 1960s as grave warnings to be heeded - not in the willingness to reward criminal behavior, but in the recognition that social and economic oppression had toxic by-products resistant to exhortations toward personal responsibility.

Kennedy's own death did not serve as a sufficient warning of Middle Eastern tensions, and perhaps the Palestinian-American serving a life sentence for his assassination was haunted more by his own demons than the policies of the United States. Nonetheless, the temptation of disaffected leaders abroad to cast the United States as the great"other" at the root of all their problems, in the name of religion or otherwise, is too strong and too dangerous to make foreign policy unmindful of its appeal in the wake of 9-11.