He speaks of Christianity, of Rosalynn Carter, of reverence for human life, of the Magna Carta, of God. He speaks several times of God. His eyes large and dark, keep watching for reaction: It has been 10 years since he sat before a woman who was not a prison official or his mother. "Do you understand me?" His voice is anxious. "Am I relating to you?"
His hair is thick, black and wavy; his skin the color of untreated leather. Short, deep lines furrow down from either side of his nose. He is a small man, hard in the shoulders and arms, and the smile now is spreading wide across his face.
"I have made my peace with myself, ma'am," he says. "And with my God. And I've indicated my desire to make my peace with the whole of humanity. Even those Jews."
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, age 35, Prisoner B21014, State Correctional Training Facility, Soledad, has taken the end seat at the conference table in PHU 1, the maximum security area where he has spent the last seven years. The letters stand for Prtective Housing Unit, which is the State of California's way of saying that Sirhan is in semi-isolation; he and 124 other prisoners of varying notoriety spend their days moving on schedule between single-bed cells, a barred and narrow commons area, and a small recreation yard where they remain segregated from the rest of the prison. Sirhan's fellow PHU 1 inmates have included one of the men who kidnaped and buried a school bus full of children in Chowchilla, Calif., and Juan Corona, who was convicted of murdering 25 farm workers and burying their mutilated bodies in the Feather River Valley. Sirhan's cell is on the third tier of the unit. Eight locked doors, including one barred gate that can be opened only by two officers turning keys simultaneously, separate the cell from the outside world.
"A routine of monotony," Sirhan says. "Period. You just wake up in the morning; they feed you; you have a lockup. One side of the building comes out one day . . . . You feel like a Pavlovian animal." The heavy midmorning light of the Salinas Valley comes through the conference room window. The window is barred. The pane is tattersalled with lead, so that even if shattered the glass would cling in place in shards. Sirhan wears a white T-shirt, blue jeans and a solid prison-issue belt around his narrow waist.
He says he did not eat breakfast.
He says he was too nervous to eat.
He says he would like to make it known that he is remorseful, that he believes it was wrong to have killed another human being, that he feels sorrow at having murdered a father and husband.
He also says he has been in prison long enough. Sirhan Sirhan, who wrenched aside the 1970s with the force that history gives only to political assassins, wants to go home.
California Democratic primary, Los Angeles, 1968. The time comes back in shredded nightmare: the crowded ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel, the elated candidate, the noisy crush of friends and reporters. "I want to express my gratitude," said the candidate, smiling into the crowd, "to my dog Freckles."
It was just past midnight, June 5. Robert Francis Kennedy, the New York senator with the soaring hopes and the thick brown hair falling over his forehead, had just pulled 198 California delegates and 46 percent of the popular vote. "I think we can end the divisions within the United States," Kennedy said, ". . . the violence, the disenchantment with our society . . . . We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. I intend to make that my basis for running." Then he stepped away from the speaker's platform, through a gold curtain, and into the stainless steel-lined serving kitchen where Sirhan Sirhan shot him to death.
The assassin was a thin little blur -- burnished skin, black disheveled curls. He shouted: "Kennedy, you son of a bitch!" He pointed a small black .22 caliber revolver at Kennedy's head, and fired, and Kennedy went down, and the expression on Sirhan's face bore into the memory of at least one witness: "A very sick-looking smile."
"Let me explain!" Sirhan screamed afterward, as football player Roosevelt Grier and Olympic star Rafer Johnson hurled their huge bodies onto his, holding him down, shielding him from the crowd. "I can explain," Sirhan cried. "I did it for my country. I love my country." Robert Kennedy's head bled out into the pantry. For a long time afterward -- after he had been pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital, and the New York City mourners had waited all night outside St. Patrick's Cathedral for a glimpse of his funeral, and the slow train south had carried his body past weeping crowds down to Arlington Cemetery, and his coffin had been lowered by candlelight into the earth near the grave of his murdered older brother -- long after all that was over, it was the dying that clung to memory, the picture of the presidential candidate bleeding to death on a Los Angeles kitchen floor.
Sirhan was identified within hours as a Christian Palestinian Arab, but many Americans were not entirely sure, 11 years ago in the historically pro-Israel United States, what that meant. June 5 was the first anniversary of the Six-Day War, in which Israel took the Sinai, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. Palestinian guerrillas had not yet attracted much American attention, and most of the nation shared a profound ignorance of the political time bomb that was The Palestinian Problem.
In the following weeks, and especially during the trial, Sirhan's cry of "I did it for my country" became clearer: Robert Kennedy, a firm supporter of Israel who had just reitereated his proposal that 50 Phantom jets be sent to the Israelis, had been murdered by a Jerusalem-born Arab who had apparently spent much of his childhood watching the violence that ultimately expelled many Palestinians from the new nation of Israel. Contrasting Pictures
He trains with weights. He can press 300 pounds, but he is uneasy about making that known, because he says people will think he is big and mean, "That's the public image of me, the impression of me, is that I'm a very big monster person, as if I'm a big ghoul of some sort. And when they look at me and see my size . . . it baffles them. The facts do not fit the propaganda."
The smile again: quick, hesitant, uncertain.He seemed anxious at first, stiff and awkward in his hard-backed chair; now he leans forward on his elbows, hungry for audience. "Relax," he says softly, as though savoring the interview. "You're too quick."
He has been described, in the years since June 1968, in wildly contrasting ways.
He has been described as a paranoid schizophrenic -- who sought inner knowledge from mail-order Rosicrucian texts, who hypnotized himself in the bathroom mirror until at one point Robert Kennedy's face flickered in to replace his own, who wrote unevenly into private notebooks, over and over.
RFK must be
be be disposed of
d d d
disposed of openly
Kennedy must soon die
die die die die
die die die die die
My determination to
eliminate RFK is becoming
more the more
of an unshakeable
He has been described as a cold political assassin, practicing at the target range all day before the shooting, carrying a loaded gun to the Ambassador Hotel, asking several times whether Kennedy would pass through through the pantry.
"Sirhan is saner than you or me," Carmen Falzone, a former Soledad convict who said he had spent time with Sirhan in PHU 1, told a Playboy interviewer last year. "He told me he made up all that trance and hypnosis stuff . . . He told me the love for the Kennedys was declining, so now he wanted to make himself look more sympathetic in the media . . . I found out Sirhan was highly intelligent, one-directional, emotionless, and suspicious, the perfect terrorist;"
And finally he has been described as a quiet boy, a bookish boy, a lonely foreigner, traumatized in childhood and pushed finally into obsessional madness by the discovery that the senator he admired was a long time supporter of Israel. His mother still lets loose with the litany of horrors she says the boy Shirhan witnessed in Jerusalem 30 years ago: the soldier blown apart by dynamite, his dismembered leg hanging off the bell tower of the Anglican church; the severed hand that floated up in the bucket Sirhan had just dipped into a well; the army truck, swerving away from gunfire, that struck and killed Sirhan's older brother.
"It breaks my heart. I nearly died in those days, it breaks my heart," Mary Sirhan says on the telephone from her home in Pasadena. "He can't help it." She says he signs his letters to her with a blessing in Arabic: God is able, and his hand never gets short.
"I don't think of myself as a killer," Sirhan says. "I'm just a human being, like everybody else. The whole idea of killing people is so offensive to me, it's so alien to everything I've been brought up with, and my values . . . it's hard for me to recognize it as an event even -- not even being aware of actually pulling out a gun and aiming it at another human being and pumping away. It's contrary to my upbringing as a Christian."
It has been stipulated, as one of the conditions for this interview, that Sirhan Sirhan will not be asked in detail about the shooting, the days that led up to it, or the various conspiracy theories that some people believe have never been adequately explored. (Most of those theories center around controversial ballistics testing that led some observers to conclude that a second gun must have been used in the murder.) No Memories
He says only, as he has in the past, that he cannot remember the shooting.
He says he cannot remember any gathering hate toward Robert Kennedy, cannot remember planning his act.
"In fact I was a supporter of [Robert] Kennedy. I was an admirer. That great exhortation of the president -- 'ask not what you can do for your country' -- I think that had quite an impact on my mind."
He says he only dimly remembers having seen the May 1968 television documentary about Robert Kennedy that was said to have outraged Sirhan with its delineation of Kennedy's admiration for Israel.
Does he remember the notebooks? "No." A sympathetic smile. "The greatest regrets."
He says the evidence and testimony at his trial showed that when he shot Kennedy he was in a trance, drunk on four Tom Collinses, and overwhelmed by the noise and bright lights. "I must have been beside myself" he says. "They say I'm lying, and all that. Well, damn it, if you don't want to believe it, don't. But that is the cold fact."
On April 23, 1969, after a jury had convicted him of first degree murder, Sirhan Sirhan was sentenced to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin prison. He stayed on death row for two years, nine months and 26 days, until the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment; California voters later restored capital punishment, but Shirhan, like the other prisoners on death row at the time of the court decision, was permanently repreprieved. He was transferred to Soledad, which sits like a row of great white dice amid the vineyards and lettuce fields, about 120 miles south of San Francisco.
He reads Arabic journals in his cell: Al Ahram, a daily Egyptian newspaper; Falastine Al-Muhtelhe, the official organ of the PLO (the name means "Occupied Palestine"). He listens to classical music on the radio, and talk shows -- he likes the sound of voices. He loves the great Arabic alto Umm Kuthum, who used to sing rich, slow, two-hour laments of religious fervor and unrequited love, but he has not had a record player since he left death row. A departing prisoner at Soledad gave him a portable black-and-white television, which had been broken for about eight months; before it broke, Sirhan says, he used to watch a lot of public television, especially the English dramas. He liked "I, Claudius" and "Upstairs, Downstairs." "The Forsythe Saga" was his favorite.
"They have me going to college, as they call it here," Sirhan says, with a hint of mockery in the word college . He has already studied oceanography, business economics and social science 139, entitled "Molding American Values." He is currently taking cultural geography and anthropology class specializing in Mexico. The subject of Israel was raised in his cultural geography class. "Superficially," Sirhan says. "I abstained [from] any involvement in that discussion." He smiles. "It was very heated."
Sirhan Sirhan was 24 years old, three years over what was then voting age, when he murdered the man who might have been president of the United States. It took him less than 30 seconds, and a second hand revolver that retailed for $31.95. Does he think about the presidency, in the walled-in quiet of his California prison cell?
Does he ever connect that evening, that gun, that one quick lunge and the cry that made close heads turn, Kennedy, you son of a bitch -- does he link that moment to Richard Nixon's years in office, to Vietnam, to the anti-war movement, to the opening of relations with China, to the first presidential resignation in the nation's history, to the long loud scrape into 1976?
"To paraphrase Jesse Unruh, who opposed the establishment of my parole date," Sirhan says, "he was saying that if Sirhan did not kill Robert Kennedy, we would not have had Watergate." 'I Killed the President'
He is quoted on this matter in the Playboy piece. "I asked Sirhan," Falzone told his interviewer, "'If you were angry because the U.S. supported Israel, why didn't you kill the president, kill LBJ? He started to trembel, those dark eyes popping, and he said, 'Don't you understand, I did kill the president. Kennedy would have been president. And if he was that pro-Israel when he wasn't president, imagine how he would be as president. So I decided to change history.'"
Sirhan says he never read the Playboy piece, but that he heard about it as it was passed around the prison, and that it is all libelous lies. "He concocted a pretty damn good story, and it was all phony," he says.
And he does not want to talk about the power of political assassins. He believes it is dangerous. He gets letters, sometimes, which he prefers not to discuss in detail -- but they are letters that suggest others have watched him, and studied what he did, and thought about doing it themselves. He does not answer the letters. He tears them up. He says they disturb him.
He also says he cannot entertain social and political what-ifs -- not publicly, anyway. "I regard myself as being a disenfranchised person," he says. "I have no right to discuss that."
disenfranchise: to disenfranchise ; . . to dispossess of the rights of a citizen or of a privilege, as a voting, holding office, etc. -- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1961 'A Victim All His Life'
Mary Sirhan, voice quickening, the rs rolled softly in the Arabic way: "He was a victim all his life, since he was a baby and a child, and when he was growing up, till he was 13 years of age in Jerusalem, all he has seen, he never had a childhood, never was happy, never laughed, all he has seen is fear, hunger, dying human beings in pieces, it's hard enough for a big man, but for a child -- and we came here. And look what happened to him."
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was born in Jerusalem, the son of a Christian Arab employe of the public works department. Palestine had been under British mandate since 1920, when the World War I Allied forces divided up the Ottoman Empire; Sirhan's father, whose family came from a village near Jerusalem called Taibeh, worked with apparent pride for the British Mandatory Government. The family was Greek Orthodox, and lived just outside Musrara, a middle-class mixed Arab and Jewish quarter, in a ground-floor apartment that looked onto a small yard with pine trees.
Sirhan was a baby in a city rumbling into civil war. Jewish immigration to Palestine had soared during the years of the Holocaust, despite the British government's 1939 declaration limiting the number of Jews who could legally enter the country, and by 1945 -- a year after Sirhan was born -- Palestinian Jews had been agitating violently for increased Jewish immigration quotas. The British handed the whole problem to the United Nations which recommended that the nation be partitioned into separate Arab and Jewish states.
The U.N. resolution passed in November 1947. The British withdrew from Palestine on May 14, 1948. In the intervening months, according to both his parents, the boy Sirhan watched the fury that was ripping Jerusalem in two, watched the bombing of Damascus Gate, where a crowd of Arabs had gathered to wait for the bus. Mary Sirhan, in an earlier interview, remembered her son saying, "Mamma, the bomb came down and made the people's blood run down there at Damascus Gate."
Mary Sirhan says he watched shooting, watched dynamite bombing, watched the death of his older brother, watched the disembowelment of a man, close up: "The bomb came and hit, and made a big ditch in the floor, and came up, and that man and his stomach and all the things in his stomach were brought out to the ground. And Sirhan was there, and many other children were there also, and they came running to me, and they said, 'Sirhan is lying on the ground' . . . He wasn't hurt but he was fainting because of fear." Good Report Card
In May 1948, according to Sirhan's mother, the family left the Musrara apartment during a predawn lull in the fighting over the newly divided Jerusalem. They fled -- leaving their belongings behind, Mary Sirhan says -- to an Arab-sector house which, according to testimony at Sirhan's trial, was shared with nine other families. Sirhan went to the Lutheran school. He was quiet, absorbed by the Bible (which he is said to have studied every evening) and deply anti-Zionist. "Arabic, very good," reads his 1955-1956 school report. "English, good; Geometry, good . . . Natural History, satisfactory . . . Conduct, good; Diligence, good."
Sirhan's father had lost his job. He was by all reports a proud man, a man so rigid in his religious and disciplinary beliefs that it is said -- although he has denied it -- that he sometimes beat his children. "Because of the frustration, you know," Mary Sirhan says. She says they struggled for the next eight years, eating rationed food and parceling out what money her husband had been able to save. In 1956, sponsored by a Pasadean family Sirhan's father had met in Jerusalem, the Sirhans emigrated to the United States under a special program for Palestinian refugees.
They came by boat to New York. Sirhan was fascinated by vending machines. He would examine the back of the machines, trying to figure out where the coffee and chocolate bars came from. "Mamma," Mary Sirhan says he asked her, "if we are Americans, are we going to be blond very soon?" His sister kept flushing the toilet, crying, "God bless America!" And all the way to Pasadena, on the crowded train that carried the family across the country, Sirhan looked out the windows into the rocking January snows -- watching, his mother says now, for something that looked like the stone houses of Jerusalem.
In 1956 Robert F. Kennedy, 31-year-old counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, had spent the autumn with the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson. When Stevenson lost, Kennedy returned to his Senate work and directed his attention to racketeering in the American labor movement.
An ally in the investigation told Kennedy, "Unless you are prepared to go all the way, don't start it."
Robert F. Kennedy replied, "We're going all the way."