STOCKHOLM – The Palmes had just finished an evening at the cinema. It was at the end of February 1986, and Stockholm was snowy, freezing and dark. As strange as it sounds, Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden, had no security that evening. He and his wife left the official residence in the Old City, took public transportation to the center of town, and spent time in crowded places without bodyguards, metal detectors or patrols.
At 11:20 P.M., as they were making their way home, they were accosted by an armed man in a black coat and hooded sweatshirt who shot Palme at point-blank range. The prime minister fell, his blood staining the snow. After a split second the gunman fired another bullet at Palme’s wife, Lisbeth, which grazed her back. The assassin turned and fled. A passing cabdriver called police, who came three minutes after the shooting. The ambulance came right afterward. Palme was pronounced dead at the hospital at six minutes after midnight.
Sweden awoke to a morning unlike any they’d ever experienced. Their prime minister had been murdered and no one knew why or by whom. Thirty-two years later, the murder remains a mystery. At the end of 1988, a young alcoholic criminal named Christer Pettersson was caught, tried and convicted, but released when his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court on appeal. From time to time there emerge new testimonies, revelations or conspiracy theories, but the truth remains unknown.
There are two reasons to recall this murder now. One is that Lisbeth Palme died of an illness three weeks ago. The second is more essential and more Israeli – the link between Palme’s murder and that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Political assassinations are always traumatic and history is filled with them. In the case of Rabin’s murder, the incitement campaign that preceded it, its diplomatic and social significance and the political revolution that occurred afterward made its consequences critical.
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That was not the case in Sweden, at least not on the surface. As after Rabin’s murder, masses gathered at the site of the Palme’s killing with candles and flowers, the funeral was attended by thousands of people and grief flooded the country. Unlike with Rabin’s assassination, though, Palme’s murder didn’t expose any clear dispute, primarily because the identity of the murderer and his motives weren’t known. Still, at least one lesson should have been clear, the prosaic and self-understood lesson that careful guarding of elected officials is at least as important as guarding democracy itself.
Palme was totally exposed during his murder and Swedish society paid a high price for this blunder. But was the lesson learned? The answer is no. Proof of this is what happened in September 2003, when Anna Lindh, then Swedish foreign minister, visited a department store in downtown Stockholm. Although she was one of the government’s senior figures, she had no security, just like Palme. While she was shopping she was approached by a 25-year-old man who stabbed her all over her body. She died in the hospital the following day.
Since then the security around senior Swedish officials has improved, but it still isn’t rare to see ministers and members of parliament walking alone in the street or riding the bus. This isn’t the result of a security failure. It’s the result of a political tradition that sanctifies accessibility, openness and transparency. These are unquestionably good traits, but interpreting them this way leaves democracy exposed to obvious dangers.
To the same degree, Sweden sanctifies freedom of expression and freedom of assembly almost without limit. These are also admirable traits, but they are exploited in the real world by the followers of the 21st century’s cancerous diseases. Neo-Nazis march through the streets in uniform; desperate, frustrated men perpetuate hate crimes against Jews and migrants; and youths in the suburbs of large cities are recruited to join ISIS. These are all symptoms of a society that doesn’t find the strength and courage to recognize that democracy has enemies, and there is no choice but to discuss ways of protecting it.
Here lies the Israeli connection to Palme’s murder. Since Rabin’s assassination in Tel Aviv in 1995, there has been a bitter debate over his commemoration. Some see it important to emphasize his political legacy, while others claim that commemoration should be dignified, neutral and lacking a political message. Yet there is another possibility. Between political remembrance, which belongs to just one camp, and official remembrance, which treats the murder as if the prime minister had died of a heart attack, there is the obvious truth.
The Rabin assassination is first and foremost a horrible case of political violence, whose message must be above all a message of setting boundaries to the political discourse and (physical) protection of democratic institutions and elected officials.
Those who assert that aspiring for unity and concealing Rabin’s path from the collective memory is superficial and often fascistic, too, are right. On the other hand, the aspiration to remember Rabin in the context of the Oslo Accords alone forgoes the attention and identification of most of Israeli society. In contrast, the debate on protecting democracy itself and on what it permits or forbids is important and relevant to all sides. It is neither an unimportant message that papers over the murder, nor a message that speaks to only one political camp. It is not partisan, but it is very political.
Democracy needs protection by all camps. It needs checks, balances and a free press. It won’t tolerate incitement and racism. And it should have freedom of expression with clear, unequivocal borders, which Rabin himself defined minutes before his death. “Violence is undermining the very foundations of Israeli democracy,” he said. “It must be condemned, denounced, and isolated. This is not the way of the State of Israel.”
The Swedes missed this basic idea in 1986 and ended up with more political violence. Israel, given as it is to internal and external conflicts, is in even greater danger. Its public leaders would do well to dedicate the memorial day for Rabin to addressing this existential danger, and not wasting it time and again on the usual spats over who will speak in the square and who will organize the ceremony.