UNCERTAINTY lingers over the identity and motive of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme's slayer. This hardly makes easier the Swedish public's effort to find some helpful perspective on last Friday's assassination. Such were Mr. Palme's international activities that West German terrorists and Palestinian, Kurdish, Iraqi, and Iranian factions are among those considered possible suspects. Or was it simply a case of murder? Whatever the circumstances, it is sad to note again how people of peaceful and constructive purpose can become targets for senseless attack -- senseless because nothing can be taken away from the achievements of such individuals, their effect on history, and the moral presence their lives have declared. The legacy of an Abraham Lincoln or a Mohandas Gandhi could not be diminished by an assassin's bullet.
And so for Palme. His views were often nettlesome to those he criticized. But his early opposition to United States escalation of the Vietnam war, his condemnation of white minority rule in South Africa, and his disapproval of the Franco government in Spain and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were expressions of a distinctly independent conscience. In 1982 he asked NATO and the Warsaw Pact to establish a nuclear-free zone in Europe. More recently he called for a European disarmament conference in Sweden, condemning the arms race.
The Swedish people were very proud of Palme's outspoken prominence in world affairs. The previous three leaders of the Social Democratic Party had not been so internationally inclined. Before Palme, there was of course Swedish statesmen like Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary-General from 1953 to 1961. But Palme started a new tradition for Swedish political leaders.
The career thus far of Mr. Palme's successor, Ingvar Carlsson, has focused largely on domestic affairs. Mr. Carlsson's first challenge will be to the country's crucial bargaining over wages. Carlsson has several things going for him. The Social Democratic Party structure is very secure. The latest national election was held last fall, and the next is more than two years off. The drop in oil prices has helped to speed the Swedish economic recovery. But Mr. Carlsson, who has been studying economic developments in other countries the past three years, will want to keep Sweden competitive while sustaining Sweden's generous social welfare programs.
Sweden under Palme has been generous to outsiders, too, who sought asylum there. It is not to be expected that this tragic incident would cause Sweden to recoil from the Palme era's global concern over injustice and suffering.