Enemy of the state : framing the political assassin

O'Sullivan, Shane (2016) Enemy of the state : framing the political assassin. In: de Valk, Mark, (ed.) Screening the tortured body : the cinema as scaffold. London, U.K. : Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 281-317. ISBN 9781137399175


Michel Foucault notes, ‘the guilty person is only one of the targets of punishment. For punishment is directed above all at others, at all the potentially guilty’, using ‘obstacle-signs’ to deter repetition of crime: 'So these obstacle-signs that are gradually engraved in the representation of the condemned man must therefore circulate rapidly and widely; they must be accepted and redistributed by all; they must shape the discourse that each individual has with others and by which crime is forbidden to all by all – the true coin that is substituted in people's minds for the false profits of crime.’ This essay will apply Foucault’s discussion of the political technologies of punishment to the case of Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Democratic Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968, still incarcerated in San Diego. Cinema has seldom addressed the RFK assassination. Bobby (Estevez) (2006) focused on the impact of the assassination on a fictionalised set of twenty-two characters at the Ambassador Hotel on the night Kennedy was shot; and two feature documentaries explore the conspiracy aspects of the case and set out a counter-narrative to the official story – The Second Gun (Alcan) (1973) and RFK Must Die (O’Sullivan) (2008). Television has had a much greater impact in circulating the ‘obstacle-signs’ engraved in representations of Sirhan, framing the state narrative of the assassination and shaping public opinion and political memory. I will explore the crime and punishment of Sirhan by considering ‘television as scaffold’ – how US networks have mediated the punishing power of the state on the body, mind and soul of the once-condemned man from the aftermath of the crime to his recent parole hearings. As director of RFK Must Die (2008) and author of Who Killed Bobby? (2008), I construct an evidentiary polemic that contests Sirhan’s conviction for the first-degree murder of Bobby Kennedy. Here, I will examine the state’s punishment of Sirhan and how the dynamics of his subjugation and the misuse of evidence contributed to his penal sentence, and shaped public reception of the state narrative of the assassination.

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