This past week, the Times ran a story about the extent of the gains made by the reconstituted Taliban, not just in Afghanistan or in the semi-autonomous tribal regions on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but well within Pakistan itself:
Using a portable radio transmitter, a local Taliban leader, Shah Doran, on most nights outlines newly proscribed "un-Islamic" activities in Swat, like selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing and dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school. He also reveals names of people the Taliban have recently killed for violating their decrees — and those they plan to kill.
The Taliban are now the de facto rulers of the Swat Valley, a chunk of territory the size of Delaware that's just a hundred miles outside Pakistan's capitol Islamabad. Every night, they terrify villagers with radio broadcasts announcing who will be killed that night - from policemen to dancing girls - and more often than not, the bodies of those named are dumped in the public square the next morning.
For atheists, this is the endgame. This is what we're up against. All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy - whether it be the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the girls' schools in Swat, or the very lives of those who oppose them. To them, everything good in life is a sin, and existence is a narrow, cramped, twisted path between vast mountains of prohibition. Violence is all they know and the only method they ever consider. And if they had their way, they'd plunge all the world into the dark age they've imposed in miniature in Swat, into perpetual stagnation, fear, and brutality. That is their utopia, their vision for the future of humankind.
One wonders, how many people would they be willing to murder to realize this goal? Would there ever come a time when the slaughter would exhaust even their thirst for bloodshed and force them to conclude that imposing uniformity through violence is futile? Or would they willingly continue shooting and slitting throats until every last spark of independent thought was stamped out from the world - and if so, would they then turn their knives on each other?
But if this story starkly outlines the danger we face and the evil that religious extremists have wrought, it also hints at how we could triumph over them:
"The local population is totally fed up, and if they had the chance they would lynch each and every Talib," said Mr. Naveed Khan, the police official. "But the Taliban are so cruel and violent, no one will oppose them. If this is not stopped, it will spill into other areas of Pakistan."
For all their cruelty and brutality, they are not invulnerable. They do not command the allegiance of the majority, nor will they ever. They can only succeed by keeping all their slaves terrorized, so that they're too afraid for their own lives to band together and rise up in unison. If all the people of Swat decided as one to fight back, the Taliban wouldn't stand a chance against them.
Of course, the opposite is true as well: if the people of Pakistan do not unite to stand up against them (and if the army continues to turn a blind eye, as it has so far been doing), the Taliban will continue to make gains, until in time they might threaten the government itself. Needless to say, in a nuclear-armed state, that would be a catastrophe too horrible to imagine. Only the cold logic of mutually assured destruction kept the Cold War from erupting into a nuclear exchange; if one side in such a standoff was a horde of death-welcoming religious fanatics, as the Taliban are, that slender reed of safety would likely not hold. It's the moral duty of all nations, the people of Pakistan first and foremost, to fight back against these monsters and ensure that that nightmare scenario never comes to pass.