At the moment, John Hinckley is on trial for the shooting of Ronald Reagan. In California, the jails hold the likes of Sara Jane Moore who tried to kill the innocuous Jerry Ford and Mark David Chapman serving time for the murder of John Lennon. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the shooting of George Wallace and now comes Sirhan Sirhan seeking parole. He is guilty, among other things, of bad timing.
But those "other things" are really what count--specifically the murder of Robert Kennedy. Sirhan is a hater par excellance, a man so vile he makes you want to gag your own emotions. Only Sirhan could first kill Kennedy and then cite his victim as some sort of character reference. With cosmic gall, he said that if Kennedy were alive, he would be in favor of a parole. He has a point.
The assertion is crass and offensive--typical Sirhan. Yet in some perverted way he has gotten a handle on the America legal ethic and he will not let go. What he is saying, after all, is that this is a nation of laws and not men and the man he killed, while famous, while great, while compassionate and maybe capable of transforming American politics, was nothing more than a man--no more, no less. The ultimate crime is the murder of a man--any man.
The chances are that Sirhan will not be granted parole. He has written some threatening letters, and that may be enough to keep him behind bars. What seems to offend the public, though, is not just the remote chance that the killer of Robert Kennedy could be freed (and, in short order, probably become an author and talk show guest), but that he is eligible for parole in the first place. There seems to be something wrong with a system that would even consider freeing a man who put a bullet into the body of Robert Kennedy--and into the heart of the American political system.
After all, a political crime is unlike any other. Kennedy was a presidential candidate, a public man, and killing him was, in addition to everything else, a crime against the state. Sirhan did not merely want to kill Robert Kennedy--he wanted to alter the political process by violent means. He wanted to silence an idea, to affect policy.
But where do you draw the line when it comes to political murders? Shall we have a separate category for them down to the level of, say, member of the legislature? How about city council member or sheriff or judge? And why stop with politicians? How about policemen? Don't they need special protection? And if it is ideas we are talking about, then how about newspaper editors? Some of them have had to defend their ideas at gunpoint.
No, the task is hopeless. The crime is murder and we cannot start to rate some lives higher and more valuable than others. And we cannot judge the killer by his politics--not the fact, for instance, that to many Sirhan's are vile. Offensive or unpopular politics is no reason to keep a man in jail--not in this country.
So we are sort of stuck with Sirhan. He falls through every crack in the law. His death sentence was commuted to life and his life sentence made him eligible for parole. If he has been a good boy in prison and if he does not seem to be a threat to the community, he is supposed to be entitled to parole.
There is something profoundly troubling about that. The freeing of Sirhan would diminish the already low level of confidence the public has in the criminal justice system. The way around that is not to violate the spirit of the law to deal with Sirhan, but to structure things in advance so that considerations such as the public perception of justice or the deterrence of other political assassins can be taken into account. It's not wrong to give parole boards wide latitude. It's only wrong to apply it retroactively--and then to one person.
It's likely that the California parole board will disappoint Sirhan. But if it has to do that by making a special case of him, by treating him differently not because of his crime but because of his victim, then his ultimate victim will not have been Robert Kennedy, but the principle of equal justice under law. If that should happen, then awful, awful Sirhan Sirhan will have accomplished more than he imagined. He will have killed not only a man but also an ideal for which he stood.