“Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
— Martin Luther King Jr. (quoting William Cullen Bryant)
Sometimes, oceans are not enough.
Usually, the fact that we are barricaded on both sides by great bodies of water gives us in this country a certain sense of remove from the awful things people with funny names do to one another in strange places on the far side of the globe. But once in a while, the thing is awful enough that you can’t ignore it, or pretend that it is less real.
Such is the case with Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl whose shooting last week on a school bus in the Swat Valley sparked headlines and outrage here and around the world. Malala, who at this writing is in critical condition after emergency surgery, has been an Internet activist, agitating for women’s access to education.
The Taliban considers that a capital crime. It claimed responsibility for the men who stopped the bus and boarded it, who asked for Malala by name and, when she was identified, shot her and fled. The group has said that if Malala survives, it will come for her again. It says her death is required under Islamic law. Friday, three suspects in the shooting were arrested.
But make no mistake: Islam is not their religion. It is their excuse.
There are two reasons this story crossed the ocean. The first is that it is appalling. Human garbage does not get much ranker than a man who boards a school bus to kill a child. The second is that it is recognizable, that we see in their mad religious and ideological fundamentalism ghostly shadows of our own.
Granted, the outspoken child in this country is not in particular danger of physical violence from religious or ideological zealots. But the abortion doctor is. The gay couple is. The Muslim-American is.
Fundamentalism is fundamentalism wherever it breeds, always the same dark stain of unbending literalism, always the same shrill claim that it guards the one true path to enlightenment, always the same crazed insistence that the one unforgivable crime against faith, the one inexcusable heresy of ideology, is to ask questions.
But where there are no questions, there can be no true answers. And where there is not freedom, there cannot be real faith. How real can faith be if it is not a thing freely held, if it is something required, coerced, enforced?
This is something fundamentalists never understand. They think people can be intimidated or mandated into silence. They think people can be shot or bombed into obedience.
Perhaps, for a while, they can.
But the great man was right: Truth crushed to earth will rise again. And he was right, too, when, in the same speech, he quoted the abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Because there are not bullets enough in all the world to gun down the human will to be free.
So eventually and inevitably, there will always be someone who can neither bend, nor pretend, someone compelled by conscience — and yes, sometimes, faith — to stand and resist. There will always be a Mohamed Bouazizi, immolating himself in Tunisia, a Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat in Alabama, a Paul Rusesabagina sheltering people from massacre in Rwanda, an Oskar Schindler hiding Jews from the Nazis in Poland, a nameless man standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square. And a Malala Yousufzai, age 14, defying the Taliban in Pakistan.
In taking their lonely stands, these people birth myths and memories that make us — and generations that come after us — braver than we actually are, or would otherwise be. In a word, they inspire. So the irony here is almost poetic. The Taliban was so threatened by the words of a little girl that they tried to kill her.
And in so doing, they ensured that she will never die.
Tribune Media Services
Leonard Pitts is a syndicated columnist based in Washington.