Tom Henry: Release Sirhan Sirhan? I don't get it

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Sep. 5—June 5, 1968.

If you were living back then, it's a date that's probably embedded in the back of your head like other dates we associate with major news events.

You might not think about Robert F. Kennedy being gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles each and every year that June 5 arrives. His assassination and others — including those involving his older brother, former President John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — are nothing to celebrate.

But it was an event which shook the world during a time in which the Vietnam War was front and center on television screens in America's living rooms.

It was a punch to the gut that hurt as much as the final days we witnessed recently of America's war in Afghanistan, but for different reasons.

Back then, Vietnam was on our minds daily.

Our failed departure from Afghanistan, on the other hand, finally woke up this nation after 20 years of relative apathy and obscurity about a different war on the other side of the world. Americans tended to lean more toward cat videos and other escapist forms of entertainment on their Facebook and Twitter feeds than hardcore updates about casualties sporadically reported across any combination of TV screens, hand-held devices, tablets, personal computers, and rapidly changing print media.

I'm not saying Bobby Kennedy would have been a great president. Having just won the California primary, though, he surely was in contention for the job.

His older brother, JFK, wasn't universally liked — despite the media's romanticism of his Camelot era — and he had a pretty crushing blow to his legacy in the form of the Bay of Pigs disaster. What happens now with Biden may or may not have parallels.

But let's set that aside for a moment and think about what Sirhan Sirhan did in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968.

He shot to death one of our most high-profile public officials.

And, now, the California Parole Board has inexplicably recommended his release at age 77, concluding he is no longer a threat to society.

Embattled California Gov. Gavin Newsom — while trying to stave off a serious recall effort — will make the final decision.

I don't get it.

What is it about our culture and our generally accepted belief that a sentence is not really a sentence and doesn't necessarily have to be carried out to the end?

I was a 9-year-old boy living in Grand Rapids, Mich., when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

I could not have discussed in specific detail what was happening in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or other parts of Southeast Asia, nor could I have adequately explained why Bobby Kennedy's support of Israel bothered Sirhan Sirhan so much.

I didn't know everything there was to know about the civil rights movement from the comfort of my suburban home.

But I could feel change was coming.

I empathized with the less fortunate, and didn't understand why human beings could be so malicious to each other.

I became fascinated by rapidly advancing science and technology, such as NASA's race to the moon against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Bobby Kennedy's killing had an impact on me in ways I can't explain, other than — in some small way — it likely contributed to my eventual decision to become a journalist.

I wanted to become a writer as far back as I remember, as early as grade school when one English teacher after another offered me encouragement. It wasn't until my senior year in high school, though, that I decided to pursue journalism as a career, mostly because I'd learned Ernest Hemingway and other writers had dabbled in the craft when they were young so they could work with the language on a daily basis.

The Saturday after Bobby Kennedy was gunned down, I joined my Mom on her weekly shopping trip to the original Meijer Thrifty Acres on 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue, a short drive from our Grand Rapids house.

I don't know why, but I was compelled to clean out my piggy bank and purchase a 600-some page paperback biography of Bobby that was far beyond my reading comprehension at the time.

I knew he was an important figure, partly because my mother — despite her Republican leanings — liked him. Dad was a Richard Nixon supporter. The '68 election was one of the few I heard them disagree.

I did something else which may have foreshadowed my future career: I began a clip file.

I started collecting Newsweek, Life, Look, Time, and other magazines which featured major events as cover stories, as well as many newspapers. It's an obsession my wife will agree has continued to this day.

In August of 1968, the singer Dion released "Abraham, Martin, and John," a piece composed by songwriter Dick Holler with minutes after Bobby Kennedy was slain.

Dion almost didn't record it, wondering if it was too soon. It became a hit, and before long was covered by many other artists.

It concludes with these lyrics:

"Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill

With Abraham, Martin, and John."

I get emotional listening to it, even today.

More than 53 years after Bobby Kennedy's assassination.

Release Sirhan?

I don't get it.

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