Never is a long time, though, and the years have a way of eroding such sentiments.
The day after Biden spoke, a two-member panel of California’s parole board offered a measure of forgiveness to a forgotten terrorist: They recommended release for Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the Palestinian refugee who fatally shot Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), then 42, on June 5, 1968, leaving 11 children fatherless, snuffing out a remarkable career and decapitating a political movement.
Sirhan’s case raises complex questions about punishment and redemption. It centers, or should center, on remorse, which is the key to unlocking any decent society’s store of forgiveness — while honoring its pain and preserving the truth.
In our time, Sirhan might have been described as a “lone wolf,” or “self-radicalized.” Traumatized by childhood experiences during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and dismayed by the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, Sirhan became enraged at Kennedy, a leading Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, because he supported military aid to Israel. The then-24-year-old filled a notebook with phrases such as “RFK must die” and acted on them.
Sirhan has already benefited from the 1972 California Supreme Court decision that struck down capital punishment, automatically reducing his original death sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole. In 1973, Palestinian gunmen tried to spring Sirhan, demanding his release in exchange for diplomats they took hostage in Sudan. (There is no evidence Sirhan had any prior knowledge.) President Richard M. Nixon refused to bargain; the terrorists killed the U.S. ambassador and two other captives.
Sirhan subsequently sought his freedom at 16 separate parole hearings, without success until now. The 77-year-old has paid for his crime with 53 years behind bars.
Is it enough? There is one clearly wrong answer: that Sirhan deserves freedom because he is not guilty, a position unfortunately taken by the late senator’s second-oldest son. Widely known for spouting anti-vaccine propaganda, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also embraces irresponsible and thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories which hold that Sirhan’s shots injured bystanders, but that a second gunman killed Kennedy.
Distortion is even worse than forgetting. In truth, Sirhan has at various times admitted the crime — including at his trial in 1969 — though he eventually reverted to claiming he remembers little except being wrestled to the ground, gun in hand, by Kennedy supporters.
To read transcripts of Sirhan’s parole hearings and other public statements is to look in vain for clear and convincing repentance. He has protested amnesia, denied guilt, blamed “the tremendous Jewish interest” for his parole denials, or, in 2003 and 2006, boycotted the proceedings, letting a lawyer speak for him.
In 1985, he told the board: “I want my liberty so bad . . . just give me the answer that you want to hear and I would recite it to you in all sincerity.”
When that failed, Sirhan gave a televised interview to David Frost in 1989. “I am totally sorry and feel nothing but remorse for having caused that tragic death,” he avowed, but still couldn’t help explaining his anger at Kennedy through this analogy: “Imagine if you were a German or a Jew in Hitler’s Germany and if you had the opportunity to assassinate Hitler,” Sirhan said. "I’m sure that they would have tried to do that.”
At his hearing this year, Sirhan equivocated yet again. “Sen. Kennedy was the hope of the world,” he said, according to the Associated Press, "and I harmed all of them and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed, if I did in fact do that.”
One of Kennedy’s children, Douglas Kennedy, honored the fact of Sirhan’s guilt but accepted parole if Sirhan were deemed no longer dangerous, saying he sees him "as a human being worthy of compassion and love.” One can understand — indeed admire — an individual survivor’s generosity of spirit without necessarily adopting it as public policy.
On behalf of society, the parole commissioners should have been more demanding. They duly noted Sirhan’s “lack of taking complete responsibility,” as one put it, then legalistically assigned greater, mitigating, weight to Sirhan’s advanced age now, and, per a 2018 California law, his youth at the time of the offense.
These Kennedys should be heeded — not because they are the victim’s family, of course, and still less because they are Kennedys.
This is about sending the right message to California and to American society as a whole: Justice may be tempered by mercy, for those offenders who sincerely, humbly, seek it.