Robert Francis Kennedy, my personal political hero, would have been eighty-one years old today. Except, of course, that he died when he was forty-two, gunned down moments after winning the California presidential primary election.
Had he lived, this world would have been a better place. He was murdered by an unbalanced freelance Palestinian terrorist who was unhappy over Kennedy’s support for Israel.
We were so politically naïve then that the American media mostly did not see the Palestinians as a people who could have any coherent or rational political aims. Looking back at the coverage, the general conclusion was that Sirhan Sirhan must be a lunatic. We saw him as we would John Hinckley, who later tried to kill President Reagan to impress the actress Jodie Foster.
We’ve all learned a lot more since then. About Arabs and Muslims, Sunnis and Shia, and the complex tapestry of ethnic politics. Here’s something else I can tell you. If Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would be one of the biggest boosters of Arab Americans running for office, especially if they were Democrats.
I can see RFK having come to Michigan four years ago to campaign for Ishmael Ahmed, when he ran for University of Michigan trustee. I can see him coming to Dearborn after September 11, to reassure frightened people who feared mob violence.
We have a long way to go. But I am hopeful because of people like Imad Hamad, and my friend Rudy Simons, who is Jewish and Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who together took considerable risks to take medical aid to Arab children in Iraq.
We aren’t going to get there overnight, and the racist and genocidal and nihilistic statements of Muslim extremists are a big roadblock. But electing Arab-Americans to positions like judges and local mayors and city councils and hopefully, statewide boards and agencies is a start. The more any people have invested in America, the more they feel part of the fabric and tapestry of America, the more they have to lose when bad things happen to America.
Robert F. Kennedy knew that. That’s why he went into ghettos when no other politician would and sat there and took it when angry young black men full of rage screamed at him.
We still have plenty of racial problems in this country. But we have come a long way since 1968. For the last years we have had two secretaries of state, both of them black, one of them a woman.
Forty years after 1968, one of the most talked about presidential prospects for 2008 is a black U.S. Senator whose mother was white and whose father was not African American, but African.
Someday I want to see an Arab American elected to office and then defeated for reelection by the voters. Not because he or she was Muslim, but because they didn’t like what they did on the job.
When that happens, I know we’ll be all right.