Gary Willig

Why not an Opera about Sirhan Sirhan killing RFK?

The creators and supporters of the opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, claim that it is important to show both sides of the story and the humanity of both the killers and the victims. Opponents of the opera claim that there is something obscene in humanizing the perpetrators of a cold-blooded murder, and ask if operas similarly depicting the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks or the murderer of Martin Luther King Jr. would be similarly tolerated and celebrated. My challenge to the creators and supporters of The Death of Klinghoffer has more in common with the atrocity commited on the Achille Lauro.

In 1968 an American was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in support of the cause of Palestinian nationalism, just like Leon Klinghoffer, who was also an American citizen and not an Israeli citizen. The murderer is known to have had deep passions about Palestine, and was even born in Jerusalem while it was under British rule, making him an easy character to write great songs for. If there is nothing wrong with an opera depicting the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer as eloquent idealists who have suffered terrible injustices then there is nothing wrong with making an opera depicting another murder of a single American for the same nationalist motives.

I am talking, of course, about Sirhan Sirhan’s assasination of Robert F. Kennedy. Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian, was captured with a gun at the assassination, confessed that he had killed RFK, and was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death-later reduced to life imprisonment. His diaries reveal that he was obsessed with killing RFK for the latter’s support of Israel for a while before carrying out the murder.

The only major difference between the murder of RFK and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer is that Klinghoffer was an unknown, disabled, elderly man, while RFK was a beloved Senator, Presidential Candidate, and brother of the late assaninated President John F. Kennedy. A politician’s life, no matter how famous or well-liked, is not worth any more than the life of an average citizen, even if that citizen is elderly or disabled. There is no moral difference between these two acts of murders. They were carried out for the same reasons.

So I call on John Adams and Alice Goodman, the writer and librettist, respectively, of The Death of Klinghoffer to write a new opera depicting Sirhan Sirhan the same way they have depicted the terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer. Sure, some people will be offended, probably including the Kennedy family. But Adams and Goodman did not care about offending people with The Death of Klinghoffer, including the children of Klinghoffer family.

If they agree that the assassination of RFK is just as worthy of being made into an opera showing both sides of the story as the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, then they can say that they were right to write The Death of Klinghoffer. But if they say that making an opera humanizing Sirhan Sirhan is too offensive, or too much in bad taste, then it will be clear that they feel that the killing of Jews, even those who have no relationship to the State of Israel, is less offensive and more justified than the killing of non-Jews. And by doing so they will prove once and for all that they and their play are anti-Semitic.

I also call on all Americans who have protested the performance of The Death of Klinghoffer to sign a petition demanding that the creators prove their artistic and intellectual integrity by creating this play depicting the assassination of RFK from both sides.

About the Author
Gary Willig is a researcher at the Center for Near East Policy Research and a student of communications at Bar Ilan University