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Swedes anxious about identity of Palme's assassin. Concern over social impact if foreigner found to be killer

``I hope it's a madman,'' said one Stockholm woman quietly. ``That would be the best.'' She articulated what seems to be the fear of many a Swede in the wake of the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme: that the assassin might turn out to be a foreigner and touch off a latent xenophobia that quite a few Swedes suspect hides beneath the surface of their extraordinary generosity toward immigrants.

Or -- even more unthinkable -- that the assassin might turn out to be a Swedish opponent of Palme and expose this country's celebrated ``Middle Way'' consensus of the past seven decades as a myth. To outsiders these fears might seem exaggerated, more a reflection of Swedes' merciless introspection than of political reality. But the premonition is widespread.

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The anxiety arises in part from the sheer depth of family grief that members of this small and still quite homogeneous nation feel for a prime minister who walked and bicycled among them as an equal. The community mourning here can only be compared with the feeling Americans experienced when President Kennedy was shot in 1963.

The most phlegmatic and suave civil servant can suddenly burst into tears as he speaks of Palme, then think he has to apologize for his loss of control. Many of those adding their roses to the mound of flowers at the murder site come from the immigrant 10 percent of the population and feel themselves real Swedes. Today, the anxiety arises further from the ``loss of innocence'' that so many Swedes say they experienced when this murder erupted in a society that has prized nonviolence.

``Now I am afraid that Sweden will be like the US,'' said one 17-year-old student, one of thousands who phoned in to the labor movement daily Aftonbladet. She was referring to the US's reputation for casual violence.

In this atmosphere the few clues that the police have found so far are especially disquieting because they point to a premeditated and possibly professional murder. Premeditation and madness may not be mutually exclusive. But the more time that passes without the intentional or inadvertent clues that a publicity seeker or psychopath would ordinarily leave behind, the greater the foreboding.

The first thought of many here was that the assassin might have been one of the fanatics among the Kurds, Yugoslavs, Palestinians, Iranians, Turks, or other minorities that sometimes bring their internecine feuds to Swedish soil.

``You have to watch out for those `blackheads,'!'' a total stranger shouted to the young Stockholm woman quoted above, she related, within hours of the assassination. He used the derogatory slang word for third-world foreigners. And parliamentary speaker Ingemund Bengtsson stated on the day after the murder, ``I am afraid of what could happen if the culprit turns out not to be Swedish. The hatred toward immigrants could become horrific.''

So strong has been this concern that Palme's successor, Ingvar Carlsson, felt compelled to counter it at his first press conference as acting prime minister: ``If, and I say if, a foreigner did this terrible crime, it has nothing to do with the several hundred thousand people who have come to Sweden and now work here. Swedish democracy is strong enough to stand against that kind of reaction.''

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But what if the assassin turns out to be a conservative Swedish opponent of Palme? Inconceivable as this may seem to an outsider, this hypothesis comes close to being a preoccupation with some here at the left end of the political spectrum.

After the Social Democrats lost an election in the 1970s, for the first time in four decades, a conservative coup against any return of a Social Democratic government became a popular theme for novels. And in real life an Aftonbladet reporter covering the memorial church service for Palme recalled earlier conservative heckling of Palme at a meeting in the same church and associated this with ``the compact hatred that . . . ended his life.''

Even more explicitly, Aftonbladet columnist Karl Vennberg wondered if ``the fundamental ideas of this basic democracy'' have not been ``infected with some kind of rot at their core.'' Palme, he said, ``has been exposed to a campaign of hatred . . . in leading newspapers there have been advertisements published which may have been interpreted by weak and inflamed brains as a call for assassination. . . . We live in a poisoned climate where even officers in high positions can step out openly and declare their total lack of loyalty to the country they are commissioned to serve.''

He was not referring to the tiny neo-Nazi, racist movement that has sprung up here in recent years. He was alluding instead to the controversy over an alleged press leak by disgruntled Swedish military officers of Soviet plans for commando operations in Sweden in case of war. A number of military officers have felt that Palme dangerously shaved defense spending in favor of social welfare and that he didn't want to acknowledge the extent of the Soviet military threat. The government has brought the newspaper that published the leaks to court on charges of violating official secrecy acts.

The failure to identify the assassin thus fans very unwelcome speculation.

If the assailant does turn out to be, say, a patient let out of a mental institution under Sweden's liberal release practices, this might well call into question the wisdom of the Swedish faith in the rational perfectibility of human society. But as a tragic exception it would not strike at the Swedes' sense of identity.

A foreign assassin, however, could strain their famous tolerance, they fear. Any politically motivated Swedish assassin would shake confidence in their rational, unemotional society even more.

Hence the foreboding as everyone waits for Banquo's ghost to materialize.

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