Savages and Saints

A wounded Pakistani girl, Malala Yousufzai, is moved to a helicopter to be taken to Peshawar for treatment in Mingora, Swat V
A wounded Pakistani girl, Malala Yousufzai, is moved to a helicopter to be taken to Peshawar for treatment in Mingora, Swat Valley, Pakistan on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. A Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking children home from school in Pakistan’s volatile Swat Valley Tuesday and shot and wounded a 14-year-old activist known for championing the education of girls and publicizing atrocities committed by the Taliban, officials said. (AP Photo/Sherin Zada)

Heated debate erupted recently over the placement of a diorama ad in several Metro stations that used the word "savages" in reference to people who preach jihad. The ad was widely interpreted as a slam against Muslims. The quotation on the poster, which was funded by a pro-Israel advocate, turns out to be a paraphrase from the writing of conservative icon Ayn Rand who wrote a longer even more insulting paragraph referencing Arabs as savages.

While the typically American debate raged about free speech, hate speech, racial and religious identity politics --- with Judge Rosemary Collyer declaring that the fundamental American right to freedom of speech prevented Metro from refusing to post the ad --- half a world away a Taliban executioner committed a savage act of cold-blooded attempted murder on a 14 year-old girl whose only crime was her desire to go to school.

Savage acts deserve that name.

Savagery such as that perpetrated against Malala Yousafzai gives witness to the presence of pure evil in human society. Malala's shooting was no mistake, no heat-of-passion moment of insanity. The Taliban planned her execution, and vowed to find her again to finish the act. She is 14 years old. She only wants to be in school. And she had the courage to say out loud that all girls should be allowed to be educated. For that, she suffered the savagery of the Taliban shooter. Islamic clerics swiftly condemned the shooting as contrary to Islamic law.

Although many Americans might agree that the evil acts of individuals should not force an entire group of people to suffer hateful labels, live under suspicion, incur vengeance and oppression --- think of our own tortured history with racial profiling, for example --- in fact, we are often quite selective in applying this notion of fundamental fairness. Since September 11, Muslims as a group have been particular targets of American suspicion, hostility and outright condemnation. Such blind hatred does nothing but encourage increasingly dangerous fringe elements to escalate violence.

Would that the people who denounce Muslims broadly focus their outrage more precisely on the criminals responsible for savage acts like the shooting of Malala!

Would that the eager energy of vengeance be turned into a more constructive advocacy for rectifying the conditions of life that make it necessary for young girls to have to be advocates for the right to go to school!

Rather than spending large sums of money on provocative ads in American subways that seem to have little point other than to generate hatred and hostility, why not use that money to build safe schools for girls and women in the world's most dangerous places to be female? It's easy to post advertisements in the shelter of a free society; it's hard to transform lives battered and damaged repeatedly in the long and perilous shadows of evil.

Judge Collyer was certainly right in her interpretation of the First Amendment's protection of what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once called "freedom for the thought that we hate." But the real question is whether the expression of hateful ideas elevates the "civilized man" or simply drags everyone closer to the abyss of savagery.

Malala Yousafzai had the courage of a saint when she stood up for the right of girls to be educated in Pakistan. She has now suffered the fate of a martyr, still alive at last report, but bearing forever the scars of a savage act of pure evil.

Perpetrating hate against Muslims in the U.S. will do nothing to stop the abuse and oppression of girls and women in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Indeed, the irresponsible exercise of free speech can have the opposite effect, fomenting even greater anti-Western sentiment and encouraging the perverse intent of the Taliban to purge all traces of "decadent Western Culture," especially notions about the rights of girls and women.

We tried war against the Taliban, and that didn't work. Ugly advertisements on American subways are pointless. The one thing that might really work is the thing the Taliban seem to fear the most: a vast corps of well-educated women marching forward to change the course of history for their families and communities.

We can stand aghast at the savagery of shooting Malala. Or we can avenge this act in the way that civilized people should --- moving forcefully and urgently, by all means necessary, to bring the powerful weapon of education to the girls who are risking their very lives for the sake of learning to read. Let's show them what true civilization really means.