By William J. Dobson
— Pakistan is a beautiful country that often bleeds with the most horrible news. This week was no exception, as word spread that Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl and well-known advocate for female education, had been shot in the head and neck on her way home from school. No one was surprised who was behind the vicious attack on the ninth-grader. The Pakistani Taliban quickly took responsibility, claiming she was guilty of "promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas." According to another girl injured in the attack, Taliban gunmen stopped their school bus. A militant asked which girl was Malala, and then opened fire.
Even in a place that has experienced no shortage of violence, like the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan where Yousafzai lives, Tuesday's attack was met with disbelief. The young Pakistani activist made a name for herself when she began blogging about life under the Taliban for BBC Urdu at age 11. The Pakistan government awarded her its first National Youth Peace Prize last year. After the attack, Yousafzai was airlifted to a hospital in Peshawar. As of Wednesday morning, surgeons had removed the bullet from her head and she was listed in stable condition. If she does indeed recover, Taliban militants promise they will try to kill her again.
Of course they do. A teen-age girl speaking out for girls' education is just about the most terrifying thing in the world for the Taliban. She is not some Western NGO activist who just parachuted into Pashtun country to hand out ESL textbooks. She is far more dangerous than that: a local, living advocate of progress, education and enlightenment. If people like Yousafzai were to multiply, the Taliban would have no future.
It's not just the symbolism of a young girl challenging their retrograde Islamist vision that should frighten them. The substance of her ideas is lethal, too. Studies suggest that educating girls is about the closest thing we have to a silver-bullet solution for countries suffering from poverty, instability and general inequity — or, in other words, the very conditions that allow a group like the Taliban to thrive. The social returns from girls' education in these places are astounding and consistently include higher household income, improved child nutrition, smaller family size, a more active civil society and better local services.
The benefits can be political as well. One survey of 100 countries found that educating girls encouraged a more participatory society, and hence made these places more receptive to democratic reform. And countries that become wealthier, safer, more stable and civically active don't offer much of a future for the medieval Islamist throwbacks who set out this week to kill Yousafzai. So we shouldn't be surprised that she topped their target list. For the Taliban, an outspoken, freethinking 14-year-old girl is the beginning of the end.
Dobson is Slate's politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of "The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy."