He was America’s original lone wolf.
It is 1989. Twenty-one years after the assassination of New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night in 1968 that he won the California Democratic primary, sending him into a real battle for the party’s presidential nomination.
Sitting across from the famous British television interviewer David Frost, Bobby Kennedy’s assassin — America’s first “lone wolf” inspired by hatred of Israel — made it plain why he had done what he had done. Sirhan Sirhan said this to Frost, as reported by the New York Times:
In the interview, Mr. Sirhan, who is a Jordanian immigrant, said that when Mr. Kennedy gave a speech in support of sending United States fighter jets to Israel, ”that seemed as though it were a betrayal.”
‘His Sole Support of Israel’
“My only connection with Robert Kennedy was his sole support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians.”
Mr. Sirhan, 44 years old, said that when he killed Mr. Kennedy, who was then the leading candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, “I was not doing it out of personal malice toward the man, but out of concern for other people.”
Mr. Kennedy “was my hero,” Mr. Sirhan said. “He was my champion.”
“I can’t say anything except that I am totally sorry and feel nothing but remorse for having caused that tragic death,” Mr. Sirhan said.
In other words? The first real Islamic terrorist attack inside America was what we now call a “lone wolf attack.” It was provoked by the American role in the Middle East and it came not on 9/11 of 2001, but thirty-three years earlier, just after midnight of June 5, 1968.
For those not around in the day, Bobby Kennedy was perhaps the most magnetic of the three Kennedy brothers who burst on the American scene in 1960. Younger than Jack and older than Ted, Bob Kennedy was at first an unlikely candidate for anything. He had a shyness and reserve that alternated with a passion to elect his brother president. Which he did as JFK’s campaign manager in 1960. Appointed Attorney General, RFK quickly launched his Justice Department as a determined opponent of organized crime and a (albeit reluctant) supporter of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
His brother’s assassination in Dallas in November of 1963 would eventually launch Kennedy on his own career. He was a mortal political enemy of the new president Lyndon Johnson, their contempt for each other legendary. By the summer of 1964 Bobby had resigned his Cabinet seat, bought a home in New York, and become the Democrats’ nominee for the U.S. Senate. He won.
For what would be the remaining three years of his life, Bobby Kennedy heralded something new in American politics — a combination politician and cultural icon with a rock star following. On the congressional election trail for Democratic candidates in 1966 crowds would swarm him, tearing at his clothes, tousling his hair, and treating him as those other mid-sixties icons — the Beatles — were treated.
All of this proceeded as the Vietnam War picked up speed. With Kennedy — again too slowly for some on the Left — beginning to separate from LBJ. In his third year in the U.S. Senate what would become known as the “Six Day War” between Israel and its Arab enemies was launched. With America’s leaders — prominently including Bobby Kennedy — standing fast by Israel’s side.
Refusing to run for president himself and to challenge LBJ in the 1968 Democratic primaries, RFK sat on the sidelines at first and watched the unlikely candidacy of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy channel the youthful anti-war opposition to LBJ. By March of 1968, with McCarthy having almost upset LBJ in New Hampshire, Kennedy could stand the pressure no more. On March 16, 1968 Kennedy jumped into the race — and the not-so-pent-up Kennedy mania broke loose, surging across the country. Two weeks later, LBJ, sensing his political doom, unexpectedly withdrew. Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey jumped in — and the Kennedy/McCarthy/Humphrey race for the Democratic nomination was on in earnest. Winning some primaries and losing others, Kennedy on June 4 won the last primary of the season, California, in a high-stakes, tumultuous campaign. Stepping to the podium to claim victory in the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles just before midnight, Kennedy spoke to a thunderous ovation from the ecstatic crowd. Ending his speech with “it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there” — a reference to the August convention — he began to leave. In the commotion — and in the day candidates other than a sitting president had no Secret Service protection — he was turned around and guided out a back way through the Ambassador’s kitchen. Standing on a table in the kitchen, Sirhan Sirhan, gun in hand, was waiting to extract lone wolf-style vengeance for Kennedy’s support of Israel. He did.
The entire nation and a good bit of the Western world were thrown into chaos in the days that followed. The sheer awfulness of Kennedy meeting the same fate as his presidential brother escaped no one. In a sign of the America that was to come, what Ronald Reagan’s future UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick would years later call the “blame America first” crowd surfaced. One television station scrubbed its programming for a while, substituting a static screen with the word “SHAME” written large. Even as word leaked out that the assassin was a Jordanian immigrant and had scribbled his animus towards Kennedy over RFK’s support for Israel in his diary, the overwhelming reaction in the media of the day was to blame some combination of America, the NRA, and, yes, inevitably, conservatives for somehow being responsible for Kennedy’s death.
There was no serious attention given to the idea that what Sirhan Sirhan had done was in fact the first — and not the last — appearance of what we now call “Islamic terrorism” on American shores. Yes, Sirhan was technically a Christian — his family were Palestinian Christians. Yet the Palestinian cause for which he killed was overwhelmingly pro-Islamic. The CIA fact book notes that 75 percent of the West Bank and 99 percent of the West Bank and 99 percent of the Gaza Strip are Muslim and in 1968 as now the causes of Palestine, Islam, and the Arab world were immutably entwined. Yet all of this was ignored when Sirhan pulled the trigger in the name of the Palestinian cause. Much less was he seen as the herald of a future world prowled by shadowy ISIS “lone wolves.”
Over the following years this type of terrorism became more frequent — but it was abroad. The attack on the 1972 Olympics killed Israeli athletes. The American hostages in Iran were in Iran. A TWA plane hijacking in the 1980s had the terrorists killing an American sailor — when the plane was in Lebanon. The hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the killing of an American Jew took place off the coast of Egypt. And on and on the list went — a Marine barracks in Lebanon, U.S. embassies in Africa, and the USS Cole in Yemen.
Then, finally, the assault on the American homeland on September 11, 2001.
The world has changed many times since that murderous night in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in June of 1968. What has not changed — what has, in fact, picked up steam — is the determination of Islamic terrorists to target “the Great Satan” that is the United States of America. American presidents come and go — eight of them from the then-incumbent Lyndon Johnson on through to George W. Bush with the ninth, Barack Obama, already at the center of a campaign to replace him with a tenth.
In March of this year, FBI Director James Comey warned of a social media campaign by ISIS to recruit “lone wolves” in America. Yesterday, word came from Boston of a plot by ISIS “lone wolf” sympathizers to behead a Boston policeman. Boston barely two years distant from the attack on the Boston Marathon by the Islam-devoted “lone wolf” Tsarnaev brothers. As with the almost-attack in Garland, Texas, by two more “lone wolves,” the term “lone wolf” has become the go-to phrase in today’s America. Lone wolf taking its place alongside the equally new term “self-radicalized.”
It has been a long forty-seven years since that June midnight in 1968.
But in retrospect? In retrospect the first of many “lone wolves” to come was already here in America. Waiting that midnight in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles, long before the existence of social media, ready to pursue his own deadly version of vengeance for American policy towards Israel and — by extension, Islam.
In retrospect? Bobby Kennedy was the first — the very first American victim of an Islamic lone wolf attack. Even more tragically, he would not be the last.
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