“In the latest of many appeals filed on behalf of Sirhan, the attorneys are seeking to overturn his conviction,” washingtonpost.com reports. “They repeated a previous assertion and presented reports from experts who said Sirhan was programmed through hypnosis to fire shots as a diversion for the real killer.” Huh. I’d never encountered the suggestion that Sirhan Sirhan was a non-lethal diversionary patsy—which seems as far-fetched as an Antarctic takeaway pizza. Nor have I read the experts’ reports suggesting the convicted killer was hypnotized to shoot at (near?) the presidential candidate. But as a former professional hypnotist, I feel qualified to comment on the question of whether or not Sirhan Sirhan could have been hypnotized to shoot Bobby Kennedy. And the answer is an unqualified . . .
Yes. In fact, anyone can be hypnotized to shoot someone “against their will.” (“Their” meaning the shooter, of course. Whether or not the victim wants to get shot is another matter.) For that kind of murderous weirdness to occur, a few factors must be in play. For the sake of argument, let’s restrict ourself to the case of Sirhan Sirhan.
1. Sirhan Sirhan must have been hypnotic
Some people are naturally better subjects than others. These “somnambulists” are completely susceptible to the hypnotist’s command. Whatever the watch swinger says goes, and these subjects can enter a deep hypnotic state at the drop of a hat. Literally. A hypnotist can put them in trance and tell them “the moment you see a hat hit the ground you will close your eyes and fall into a deep sleep.” Or squawk like a chicken. Or shoot a presidential candidate.
The counter-argument to this frightening level of control: a person can’t be hypnotized to do something against their moral code or survival instincts. Nice thought. Not true. If a subject is in a deep enough trance, the hypnotist is large and in charge of their moral code, which may or may not be important anyway. If morals are an issue, they’re easily bypassed by manipulating the somnambulist’s perception of reality.
“You hate Jews, Bobby Kennedy is a Jew who wants to kill you to hide his identity.” Or just “Shoot the bastard.” Click here to watch an entirely plausible illustrative clip from The Manchurian Candidate.
Survival instincts are also based on sensory input. A skilled hypnotist can distort the subject’s reality at will—depending on the subject’s trance depth. You don’t tell a subject to run out into the traffic. You tell them there isn’t any traffic.
So, is Sirhan Sirhan a somnambulist? A few simple hypnotic tests could establish his ability as a subject; simple experiments that can’t be defeated by play-acting (such as hypnotically-induced anesthesia). At the moment, we have no clue—aside from Sirhan’s contention that he was duped and expert opinions which I haven’t read.
Time to throw in a monkey wrench: experts can create a somnambulist using standard brainwashing or “boot camp” techniques: sleep deprivation, nutritional deprivation, physical abuse, isolation, over-stimulation, etc. Certain drugs can help too. But it ain’t as easy as it sounds . . .
2. Sirhan Sirhan would have had to have been hypnotized
If Sirhan was hypnotized to shoot at/near Kennedy, someone must have done the hypnotizing. Regardless of Sirhan’s natural or nurtured ability to go into a somnambulistic state, programming a presidential assassin requires a high level of skill. Just as not everyone can be a Marine Drill Sergeant, not every hypnotist can program a killer.
IMHO there aren’t a lot of hypnotists who could tackle that challenge, to the point where their paymasters would have enough faith in the subject’s programming to authorize such a high profile assassination. Legendary hypnotist Erik Erikson disappeared for ten years, but he was a bit of a wimp. A stage hypnotist would be the best choice, but they’re an extremely flaky bunch. Mind you, there is history . . .
The CIA dabbled with hypnosis in the 60’s—as well as putting LSD in the water supply and “remote viewing.” Speaking of which, the psychic powers-obsessed Russians were big into Pavlovian reprogramming (dog + bell = dinner, bell = dinner). But my research indicates that Russia and its allies didn’t hypnotize Americans (including John McCain) and Uncle Sam abandoned any efforts in that area after a few spectacular failures (e.g., an abortive attempt at surprise hypnosis).
You’d kinda think someone on the government side would have squealed on an anti-Bobby Kennedy hypnosis-based conspiracy by now. The lack of corroborating testimony and the idea that Sirhan Sirhan had a secret [even to him, until later] accomplice adds nothing to the credibility of this Manchurian theory. You will shoot at but not hit the Senator? I don’t think so. Speaking of bizarre . . .
3. If Sirhan Sirhan was hypnotized to kill Bobby Kennedy, he would have been hypnotized to forget he’d been hypnotized
Any hypnotist devious and talented enough to hypnotize Kennedy’s assassin would be smart enough to erase all memory of the hypnosis after the programming. And they’d know to make the subject impervious to future hypnosis (so much for our tests then).
In The Manchurian Candidate, our man Sinatra remembers the commie hypnosis in his dreams. Subconscious seepage? Again, nice idea but no. If a hypnotist erases a memory in a suitable subject, the memory’s gone. Period. So either Sirhan Sirhan had a lousy hypnotist or he wasn’t hypnotized to shoot/kill Kennedy.
As much as I like the idea of “command hypnosis” receiving the attention it deserves, I’m going with B. I don’t think Sirhan Sirhan was hypnotized to kill Kennedy. Those of you more familiar with this assassination can fill in the blanks about Sirhan’s crazy ass notebook and such, but it seems clear to me that the man is just making shit up (to use the technical term).
When weighing-up the possibility of a hypnosis-based conspiracy to kill the aspiring president, remember that The Manchurian Candidate hit the silver screen in 1959. Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on June 5, 1968.