The fact is, whoever is ultimately implicated in the crime, the country faces an uphill battle in maintaining its political stability, let alone its recently achieved and tenuous hold on democracy. Although he began his reign in 1972 as an absolute monarch, King Birendra won the Nepali people's regard and even affection despite-or perhaps because of-having let go of power over the years to the point where he was little more than a figurehead. In a country as poor and politically fractured as Nepal, the king remained an important symbol of unity or at least the possibility of unity.
But symbols are fragile things, easily shattered. When the gunman opened fire in the palace last Friday, he killed more than just those 10 unfortunate people. He may also have killed the one idea that still held Nepalis together, not because a new king could not be found, but because the murder suddenly exposed the ugly reality behind the ceremonial facade of unity that was the royal family's only reason for being. The Shahs, it turned out, were as fractious and divided as their subjects-a perception that will likely hold even if the murderer turns out to be simply a prince gone mad with bitterness. It will take an exceptional king to restore the beneficent illusion, and King Gyanendra has hardly gotten off to a good start.
The danger is that the vacuum of confidence that has ensued will provide an opening for one or other of the extremist groups that have long threatened to reverse Nepal's sluggish transition to democracy, be it Maoist guerrillas on the left, or the army on the right. The best that can be hoped is that the inquiry into the massacre, reconstituted so as to meet all charges of bias, will get back on track as soon as possible. Nepal needs to put its Shakespearean blood bath behind it and return to the more humdrum business of pulling itself up out of poverty and corruption-without reverting to demagogy. Now that would really be worth headlines.