The Conscience of Compassion

Robert Kennedy's killer and a personal struggle with forgiveness

I was eleven years old, standing outside my elementary school on one of the last days before summer break, waiting for the building’s doors to open. In 1968, we gathered together each morning in the grassy lot at the school’s entrance before the day’s first class.

“I heard he’s dead,” one girl whispered.

“Yeah, my dad told me,” another said. “Someone shot him.”

I had heard the news earlier that morning. My mother had the television on as I ate my breakfast cereal. She was crying.

Robert Kennedy had been murdered, shot the night before after winning the California primary. He was forty-two years old.

I wasn’t aware that morning of the impact Robert Kennedy would later have on me, how his shortened life would shape my political beliefs, make me see the goodness in leaders, help me understand compassion. I was too young on the day he died to fully comprehend any of this. His brother’s death was still fresh. The school principal had sent us home early from our second grade classes that day in November, 1963. My teacher’s tears and the eeriness of the silent street when the school bus dropped us off for home are still with me. And then, when Bobby died I felt again that same strange sadness. Another bullet. Another dead Kennedy. And the loss of hope, the kind only a boy could understand.

Recently I read a piece by filmmaker Michael Moore about his own struggle with the possible release of Sirhan, and Moore’s unexpected personal moment with Bobby Kennedy in an elevator when Moore was a young boy, same as me, the age of eleven. Reading it brought back my own memories and my struggles with comprehending what I felt that morning in June of ‘68. Moore links the Kennedy death and Sirhan’s parole not only to his own encounter with the senator but with a broken American penal system. A worthy and important discussion, but not what has been aching in me. For me, Robert Kennedy’s death and what to do about this killer are hards lesson on how one finds forgiveness.

Years after Kennedy’s murder, in my first years of college, I began to read everything I could about Bobby—his strong belief that the war in Vietnam was wrong and his commitment to end it, his work to help the disabled, and the impromptu speech he gave in Indianapolis on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, the first to break the news to the crowd of mostly African Americans. It is one of the most powerful speeches by a politician in American history. There was his energy and his openness, reaching his hand into throngs of followers, smiling that big smile. But there has always been one story that has stuck with me more than any other, the story of the young senator with the unruly hair and the rolled up shirtsleeves, driving his children to the “wrong side” of town to be sure they understood the plight of others. It’s been said that Kennedy loaded up the family car with the oldest of his children and drove them into and around the poorest D.C. neighborhoods. He wanted them to see for themselves how others lived, to be aware that their personal privileges were not the norm, to know that there were people who had little and needed much, and that his children should always understand that with privilege came the responsibility to help, to show and believe in compassion.

Now, decades later, two of those same children believe Sirhan Sirhan, the man who gunned down their father, should be set free.

Douglas and Robert, Jr. argued that their father’s killer should be released after more than fifty years in prison, believing that Sirhan is fully rehabilitated. The Kennedy sons base this on what they say was their father’s own “consuming commitment to fairness and justice.” A letter proclaiming this was submitted at the parole board hearing, and the matter is now in the hands of California’s governor.

My initial reaction to the news of Sirhan’s possible release was strong. He should never be free, I thought. He assaulted not only a family, he assaulted a nation.

But when I recall the story of that car ride to what was then recognized as the D.C. ghetto, I wonder if Douglas and Robert Jr. aren’t right. Not only did Bobby Kennedy continually show a sense of justice and fairness, but he carried with him a well-nurtured, highly developed sense of forgiveness. The overwhelming anger that enveloped him over his brother’s murder was said to have devastated him for years. How could it not? But in time, he knew that although the pain would always be there, the weight of anger would only derail any of the good Bobby would hope to do, not only in his brother’s name, but his own personal way. His strong faith, his devout Catholicism preaches forgiveness. It is a cornerstone of the Christian belief. Why would it be hard to see that his commitment to justice and fairness wouldn’t also mean he could find compassion and forgiveness for the man who took his life?

Many other members of the Kennedy family remain firmly against Sirhan’s freedom, and there would be few if any of us who would not understand that. If it were my father, I’m not sure I could find a level of mercy. But then I think of that eleven-year-old boy, standing outside of his elementary school on the morning of June 6, 1968 with a head full of confusion and uncertainty and a sense of grief that he wasn’t mature enough to fully understand, and I wonder if he, like so many children who have the endless capacity to forgive, wouldn’t also have agreed with the two Kennedy sons who have found it in their still anguished souls to allow some of their grief be eased through an act of mercy.


Photo: Andrew Sacks/Getty Images