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EVIL is less practiced than tolerated. It operates boldly because of the blind eye that refuses to see its bloody work and the deaf ear to hear its victims' screams. Its existence depends on the passive sin of sympathy by those with clean hands if not hearts. But there can be a moment that changes hearts--by breaking them.
On a September Sunday morning in 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a box of dynamite under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a meeting place for civil-rights activists trying to end the racial segregation of municipal facilities, including schools. It exploded, killing four little girls going to Sunday school.
But the blast claimed an unintended victim. Segregation in the Deep South died on that day. Its death would be gradual--there would be more violence, more ugliness--but it would be sure. The atrocity at God's house forced whites across Dixie, many of whom opposed integration, to choose. It did so by reducing an emotionally tangled issue to raw absolutes, and revealing the awful consequences of social prejudice. Four small caskets won an argument and reshaped sympathies.
Now consider another little girl, Malala Yousafzai, 14, a student in the Swat District of northwestern Pakistan. On Tuesday, masked Taliban gunmen stopped her school bus and demanded to know which of the girls on board was Malala, who had won both Pakistani and global accolades for speaking out against the group's repression of females. One of the masked men then shot her in the neck and head. Somehow, she survived. She is now in a heavily guarded hospital--heavily guarded because the Taliban promised to finish the job as "a lesson" to those who would adopt "Western culture."
Malala's wounding may be a Birmingham moment in Pakistan, where the Taliban enjoy pockets of support. Voices from across the political spectrum have denounced her attackers. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said, "She is our daughter." She is. And her savaging, too, peels away ambiguities, giving hope of a cure for the attitudinal schizophrenia that afflicts Pakistan.
Little girls blown up, little girls shot. The tears of contemplation, like a darkroom bath, bring out the goodness of men, and augur the end of the worst of men.