Until a 15-year-old girl was shot through the head, almost exactly a year ago, assassinating a child was thought to be a crime too depraved even for the Pakistani Taliban. Then Malala Yousafzai was singled out while travelling home from school by a man wielding a Colt 45 who left her for dead.
As it happened, the 15-year-old suffered terrible injury but clung to life, later achieving a recovery at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. But if anyone doubted the Taliban's brand of medieval savagery, this was the final proof.
"They flogged adult girls, but they never killed children," says Malala's father, Ziauddin, in a BBC Panorama interview to be shown on Monday. "We thought they might have some values." Some hope. Malala's capital offence was to have resisted the Taliban's ban on female education in her part of the Swat Valley. After the extremists captured the region in 2008, they ordered every girl to leave school.
Malala openly defied them by writing a "Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl" for the BBC and giving interviews to local television. The Taliban duly retaliated by organising the attempt on her life. Although the radicals have since been driven from the Swat Valley, Malala and her family now live in Birmingham. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - the youngest person ever to be considered for this honour - but whether Malala will ever go home is uncertain.
No one can doubt her courage, nor the inhumanity of her obscurantist tormentors. Yet it would be too easy to blame the Taliban for the lack of female education in Pakistan. Instead, Malala is only the most vivid symbol of a deep-rooted problem that existed long before the birth of the Taliban - and affects areas of Pakistan which its gunmen have never reached. In the process, the lives of millions of boys are blighted, just as surely as girls. The problem can be simply stated.
Pakistan has neglected to build a public education system worthy of the name. No single leader or political movement can be singled out for blame: this is a calamitous national failure built up over generations. Today, only 67 per cent of Pakistani girls and 81 per cent of boys go to primary school, according to the United Nations. That may not sound disastrous, until you remember that neighbouring India achieves close to 100 per cent for both genders, and even Uganda and Zambia manage more than 90 per cent.
When it comes to secondary education, the situation is far worse, with Pakistan's enrolment rate plummeting to 38 per cent for boys - and only 29 per cent for girls. Again, the poorest countries in Africa do significantly better, typically achieving around 50 per cent. Then consider the fact that Pakistan's population exceeds 180 million, of whom almost half are children under the age of 18. If a big majority have no chance to go to secondary school - and a significant minority cannot even gain a primary education - then tens of millions of children are missing out.
The consequences are felt down the generations. Today, about 60 per cent of Pakistani women - and perhaps half of all men - are unable to read or write. Pakistan deploys an arsenal of nuclear weapons, but most of its people cannot sign their own names. You do not need to travel to the Afghan frontier or the remote mountain valleys of northern Pakistan to see the results of this national failure. I have been to villages in Punjab, the richest and most populous province, where the number of children attending a government school was zero, and the number of literate adults likewise.
Travel through Africa's poorest countries and villages deprived in the same way are unknown. The causes of this extraordinary neglect are complex and have little to do with the Taliban. Pakistan remains locked in confrontation with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir and must also contend with perpetual turmoil on the border with Afghanistan. The result is that the army has first call on the nation's resources.
Pakistan's budget for 2012/13 showed that 54 per cent of all public spending at federal level went on defence and debt servicing. Education, meanwhile, received less than 2 per cent. The debts, incidentally, were mainly the legacy of previous loans to buy weapons. So the country's resources are grotesquely misallocated - and this has been true ever since Pakistan's birth in 1947.
Privately, the country's politicians concede the immorality of these skewed priorities. But they also point to the uniquely serious threats confronting Pakistan, especially terrorism on a scale faced by no other country on earth, and including the permanent, if fairly remote, possibility of war with India.
This plea in mitigation carries an implicit message: any country in our position would spend its national budget in much the same way. Yet the truth may be more complicated. First, there is the harsh fact that much of the nation's commercial and political elite are shameless and ingenious tax dodgers. Of 180 million Pakistanis, fewer than 860,000 pay any income tax at all. In 2011, 35 out of 55 cabinet ministers paid no income tax, along with 251 out of 341 members of the National Assembly.
Asif Ali Zardari, then president, set a notable personal example by failing to file his own tax return. In August, I interviewed Nawaz Sharif, the new prime minister, in Islamabad. He disclosed that "leakage" in the tax system was costing the state between pounds 3 billion and pounds 6 billion every year.
When it came to fixing this problem, however, Sharif turned out to have other priorities. In fairness, he had only been in office for two months, but up until that moment, he had not found time for a single meeting on an issue that was costing Pakistan so dearly. "I have not yet discussed this matter because, you see, these are very initial days," he said.
If Pakistan's elite were to pay their taxes, however, Mr Sharif's figures suggest that between pounds 3 and pounds 6 billion of extra money would be available for schools. But the problem runs even deeper. In remote regions, thousands of schools have been reduced to empty shells, where all classes stopped long ago. Usually, the teachers simply absconded, while still pocketing their wages.
Local officials would be given a cut in return for reporting that all is well. These "ghost schools" can be found in village after village. In some areas, there remains a deep cultural reluctance to educate children. Partly, this is down to simple economics: the poorest families need sons and daughters to work and earn money, not sit unprofitably in classrooms. At harvest time, attendance slumps dramatically in many schools across Pakistan.
Then there is a traditional prejudice against educating girls, while some argue that if all the answers are found in one book, the Holy Koran, there is no point learning anything else. Malala herself is not viewed with universal favour in her homeland. Many Pakistanis have a visceral suspicion of people who travel to the West and, they would argue, deliberately tarnish their country's image for the benefit of prejudiced foreigners.
So there is more to the neglect of education than the greed and fecklessness of a country's politicians. Fortunately, there are signs of change and improvement. In the same interview, Sharif acknowledged that spending so little on education was "indefensible" and promised to cut the military budget.
Pakistan's friends are doing their best: improving schools will absorb the biggest slice of the pounds 446 million of aid that Britain will give by 2015. The era of shameful negligence may, finally, be drawing to a close. But the Taliban are not the reason why this problem came to assume such proportions - and Malala's struggle is that of millions of others, boys and girls alike.