The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador is but the latest tragic development in a country torn by turmoil and violence. Responsibility for the murder has not been determined at this writing. But the concern is that the incident may precipitate widespread civil strife and that before long rightist forces, to prevent a Marxist coup, may take over the country, ending the present junta's commendable efforts to steer a middle course. The Archbishop was perhaps the most popular figure in the nation. Although some questioned his tactics, he had become a symbol of reason, denouncing both extreme left-wing and right-wing violence. He was especially beloved among the working classes and the peasants, whose rights he so ardently championed.
To avoid a civil war which would plunge El Salvador into more bloodshed should now be the aim of all those who so desperately want to give the country a fresh start. It is to be hoped the assassination will serve at least to drive home among all Salvadorans the utter senselessness of continuing violence and the need to bring the terrorism by the left and the right under control.
It is precisely because of a climate of brutality and anarchy that the ruling military-civilian junta has had such difficulty setting a new and enlightened course in El Salvador. Only recently the junta promulgated two major reforms, one breaking up the large farms and the other nationalizing the private banks. But these promising steps were rejected by the extreme groups of both the left and the right, and the killings have persisted. To its credit, the junta is pledged to the basic development of the country and, although it has no specific timetable for returning to constitutional rule, that remains its objective.
The question is whether the junta will be able to hang on and whether it can muster enough support at home and abroad to prevent civil insurrection. With the country so polarized, the junta would still seem to present the best chance of compromise and stability, although a temptation on the part of the armed forces now to crack down even more repressively on Marxist and other leftist opposition groups may have to be resisted. Certainly it is in the interest of the United States and, above all, the Organization of American States to try to keep El Salvador from exploding. Washington, which already is playing an assertive role in the country, and the OAS should waste no time in looking for ways to stabilize what could be a very dangerous situation.