VIEW FROM AMERICA : FAREWELL TO A PEACEMAKER : Rabin’s Death, Like J.F.K.'s, Could Breed Skeptics
The assassination of a great leader, be it battle-tested Yitzhak Rabin or youthful war hero John F. Kennedy, is always a tragic loss for a country. It can change the course of history, shifting the delicate balance between contending forces and sending the current of future events off into new channels.
Sometimes, however, as with Kennedy, the killing of a leader does something more: It opens a wound that will not heal--a hemorrhage of doubt and suspicion about what really happened that bleeds not for days or weeks but for decades.
Already, there are signs that the killing of the Israeli prime minister has some of the elements that appear to set such crimes apart. And the question of whether the case becomes the stuff of unending contention depends not only on the evidence and the credibility of the formal investigations but on the tenor of the period, on what passions had been invested in the fallen leader and on the way millions of people come to feel about their loss.
As with Kennedy, the issue is not whether the chief suspect was involved but whether the whole story is really as simple as the initial explanations make it appear.
How could one man, unaided, penetrate what is almost universally admired as one of the world’s most sophisticated security systems? How could a man with a history of extreme protests and clashes with police get so close to the prime minister? How could the waiting assassin be mistaken for an official driver, as news reports indicate he was? Was there no cordon protecting Rabin’s car?
More broadly, how could the shooting be no more than a tragic lapse of security at a time when opposition to Rabin’s pursuit of peace had grown so virulent, including unthinkable depictions of him as a Nazi and scarcely veiled suggestions he should be killed?
“As soon as the news reports described the guy and his affiliation, my initial reaction was, ‘It’s too easy,’ ” said a U.S. Justice Department official, giving voice to doubts that appear to be common here and abroad.
“We lost our innocence with [Lee Harvey] Oswald,” he said, noting that the FBI and other American agencies investigating the 1963 Kennedy assassination were so quick to rule out a conspiracy that their conclusions were widely doubted by the public.
Those thoughts are shared by anti-terrorism expert Brian M. Jenkins, vice chairman of Kroll Associates, an investigative and security firm. “People are going to ask, ‘How did this occur, despite all the inherent difficulti” Jenkins said.
“We as a country have had presidents shot with pistols, and at close range. But having gone through it, we know the psychological aftereffects. The immediate question will be: ‘Was this man acting alone, or was there a broader conspiracy?’ ”
The cost to a government and a society of failing to allay such doubts can be high. “If you don’t do this right, it can plant the seeds of mistrust for a whole generation,” warned Notre Dame University law professor G. Robert Blakey, chief counsel for the House committee that reopened the investigation into the Kennedy assassination in the 1970s.
It is crucial, Blakey said, for the Israelis not to repeat a central mistake of the Warren Commission. “The commission did a shooter investigation. They didn’t do a conspiracy investigation,” he said. The Israelis “have to prove this kid did it, but that’s not good enough. They have to prove that other people weren’t involved.”
To be sure, not all major political assassinations breed permanent controversy.
Almost no one doubted that President James A. Garfield’s killer in 1881 was a single “disappointed office seeker” or that it was a lone anarchist who felled William McKinley in 1901. In more modern times, the public accepted the official conclusion that John W. Hinckley Jr. was deranged and represented no wider threat when he wounded President Ronald Reagan, press aide James Brady, a police officer and a Secret Service agent outside a Washington hotel in 1981.
Why then do some assassinations--such as the 1994 slaying of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, which a nation has refused to accept as being the work of what authorities theorize was a lone gunman--become open wounds in the political psyche? What sets these cases apart, and how likely is it that Rabin’s death could become such an event?
On one level, some scholars say, the assassination of a figure who embodied the hopes and dreams, as well as the deepest fears, of many people--as both Kennedy and Rabin did--is hard for the public to accept as an essentially pointless act.
“The difficulty for people with Lee Harvey Oswald is that he was such a cipher. When such a figure is juxtaposed with a leader of such power and significance, we want there to be some deeper meaning,” said Jeff West, director of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a study center devoted to the Kennedy assassination and named after the location of Oswald’s vantage point in the Texas Book Depository.
“There are many recurring themes” in the challenges to the official account of the Kennedy murder, West said, but they have in common “the bottom-line suspicion that we don’t know the whole truth.”
A major factor determining whether such suspicions persist, experts say, is whether questions about specific pieces of evidence can be laid to rest. Does all the evidence fit the official scenario, or do some explanations seem to strain credulity?
This has been a central issue in the Kennedy assassination, as it may prove to be in the death of Rabin.
The timing and number of shots fired in Dallas. The possibility or impossibility of Oswald operating his outdated bolt-action rifle in the manner ascribed to him. The seemingly conflicting accounts by witnesses, including suggestions of a shadowy figure on the now-famous grassy knoll above Dealey Plaza.
What sets such questions apart is that they cannot be proved absolutely, one way or the other.
Similarly, the Warren Commission’s conclusion that a single bullet struck both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally has been argued over for years.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination but in 1963 a member of the Warren Commission staff who developed the “single-bullet theory,” said he believes that it is impossible to forestall such controversies where a will to be skeptical exists.
“I do not think it’s preventable,” he said of the likelihood that questions will hang over the Rabin assassination no matter what an inquiry finds.
In the Rabin case, as with Oswald, the issue will not be whether 25-year-old Israeli extremist Yigal Amir was the killer. Rather, the question will be whether Amir could have penetrated the security that presumably surrounded Rabin all by himself.
Specter noted the exceptional nature of “Israel’s reputation for security,” which makes the apparent lapses all the more stunning.
Nor was Rabin an unlikely target. “The volume of death threats against Rabin and [then-Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres” add to the necessity for “an intense investigation to see if the man acted alone,” he said.
Specter pointed up another factor that gives rise to continual controversy: failure of an official investigation to gain the confidence of the public.
“You’ve got to remember, the Warren Commission was a very strong response at that time. Rumors were all over about the Soviets being involved, and Fidel Castro,” he said.
Seeking to establish its credibility, Specter said, the commission “brought in independent lawyers from all over the country. . . . We didn’t have the FBI investigating itself.”
Nonetheless, skeptics had little difficulty uncovering inconsistencies and omissions in the commission’s voluminous report. Those fueled both the doubts and the conspiracy theories. Among other things, the record shows that not only did the FBI and CIA not cooperate fully with the Warren Commission but--at least in the person of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover--actively sought to skew the outcome.
“It is very important that the Israelis get the cooperation of the military and the intelligence organizations,” Notre Dame’s Blakey said. “Our CIA and FBI didn’t cooperate with the Warren Commission because they didn’t want to air their dirty linen, that the CIA had cooperated with the Mafia to try to kill Castro” and other things, he said.
“There is an incredible reflex reaction to say, ‘This is the work of a single assassin.’ But how do we know?” Blakey asked. “We need a full and fair investigation of who is this guy and who are his associates.”
Certainly the seeds are in place for conspiracy theorists. Just as Oswald’s background, which included contacts with Moscow and Castro sympathizers, established his involvement with others who held Kennedy in disdain, Amir comes from a culture of vitriolic opposition to Rabin.
It is virtually certain that Israel will appoint a high-level commission to investigate the circumstances of the assassination, although Amir’s trial may answer some of the questions left unanswered in the Kennedy case because Oswald was himself murdered.
Times staff writers Norman Kempster, Ronald J. Ostrow and David G. Savage contributed to this story.