[Reader-list] The Algebra Of Infinite Justice - Arundhati Roy
ravis at sarai.net
Mon Oct 1 00:32:05 IST 2001
The Algebra Of Infinite Justice
So here we have it. The equivocating distinction between civilisation and
savagery, between the 'massacre of innocent people' or, if you like, 'a
clash of civilisations' and 'collateral damage'. The sophistry and
fastidious algebra of Infinite Justice...
In the aftermath of the unconscionable September 11 suicide attacks on the
Pentagon and the World Trade Center, an American newscaster said: "Good and
Evil rarely manifest themselves as clearly as they did last Tuesday. People
who we don't know, massacred people who we do. And they did so with
contemptuous glee." Then he broke down and wept.
Here's the rub: America is at war against people it doesn't know (because
they don't appear much on TV). Before it has properly identified or even
begun to comprehend the nature of its enemy, the US government has, in a
rush of publicity and embarrassing rhetoric, cobbled together an
"International Coalition Against Terror", mobilised its army, its airforce,
its navy and its media, and committed them to battle.
The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can't very well return
without having fought one. If it doesn't find its enemy, for the sake of
the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one. Once war
begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own,
and we'll lose sight of why it's being fought in the first place.
What we're witnessing here is the spectacle of the world's most powerful
country, reaching reflexively, angrily, for an old instinct to fight a new
kind of war. Suddenly, when it comes to defending itself, America's
streamlined warships, its Cruise missiles and F-16 jets look like obsolete,
lumbering things. As deterrence, its arsenal of nuclear bombs is no longer
worth its weight in scrap. Box-cutters, penknives, and cold anger are the
weapons with which the wars of the new century will be waged. Anger is the
lock pick. It slips through customs unnoticed. Doesn't show up in baggage
Who is America fighting? On September 20, the FBI said that it had doubts
about the identities of some of the hijackers. On the same day, President
George W. Bush said: "We know exactly who these people are and which
governments are supporting them." It sounds as though the President knows
something that the FBI and the American public don't.
In his September 20 address to the US Congress, President Bush called the
enemies of America "Enemies of Freedom"
"Americans are asking why do they hate us?" he said. "They hate our
freedomsour freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote
and assemble and disagree with each other." People are being asked to make
two leaps of faith here. First, to assume that The Enemy is who the US
government says it is, even though it has no substantial evidence to
support that claim
And second, to assume that The Enemy's motives are what the US government
says they are, and there's nothing to support that either.
For strategic, military and economic reasons, it is vital for the US
government to persuade the American public that America's commitment to
freedom and democracy and the American Way of Life is under attack. In the
current atmosphere of grief, outrage and anger, it's an easy notion to
peddle. However, if that were true, it's reasonable to wonder why the
symbols of America's economic and military dominancethe World Trade Center
and the Pentagonwere chosen as the targets of the attacks. Why not the
Statue of Liberty? Could it be that the stygian anger that led to the
attacks has its taproot not in American freedom and democracy, but in the
US government's record of commitment and support to exactly the opposite
thingsto military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military
dictatorship, religious bigotry and unimaginable genocide (outside America)?
It must be hard for ordinary Americans so recently bereaved to look up at
the world with their eyes full of tears and encounter what might appear to
them to be indifference. It isn't indifference. It's just augury. An
absence of surprise. The tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around,
eventually comes around. American people ought to know that it is not them,
but their government's policies that are so hated. They can't possibly
doubt that they themselves, their extraordinary musicians, their writers,
their actors, their spectacular sportsmen and their cinema, are universally
All of us have been moved by the courage and grace shown by firefighters,
rescue workers and ordinary office-goers in the days and weeks that
followed the attacks.
America's grief at what happened has been immense and immensely public. It
would be grotesque to expect it to calibrate or modulate its anguish.
However, it will be a pity if, instead of using this as an opportunity to
try and understand why September 11 happened, Americans use it as an
opportunity to usurp the whole world's sorrow to mourn and avenge only
their own. Because then it falls to the rest of us to ask the hard
questions and say the harsh things. And for our pains, for our bad timing,
we will be disliked, ignored and perhaps eventually silenced.
The world will probably never know what motivated those particular
hijackers who flew planes into those particular American buildings. They
were not glory boys. They left no suicide notes, no political messages, no
organisation has claimed credit for the attacks. All we know is that their
belief in what they were doing outstripped the natural human instinct for
survival or any desire to be remembered. It's almost as though they could
not scale down the enormity of their rage to anything smaller than their
deeds. And what they did has blown a hole in the world as we know it. In
the absence of information, politicians, political commentators, writers
(like myself) will invest the act with their own politics, with their own
interpretations. This speculation, this analysis of the political climate
in which the attacks took place, can only be a good thing.
But war is looming large. Whatever remains to be said, must be said quickly.
Before America places itself at the helm of the "international coalition
against terror", before it invites (and coerces) countries to actively
participate in its almost godlike missionOperation Infinite Justiceit would
help if some small clarifications are made. For example, Infinite Justice
for whom? Is this America's War against Terror in America or against Terror
in general? What exactly is being avenged here? Is it the tragic loss of
almost 7,000 lives, the gutting of 5 million square feet of office space in
Manhattan, the destruction of a section of the Pentagon, the loss of
several hundreds of thousands of jobs, the bankruptcy of some airline
companies and the dip in the New York Stock Exchange? Or is it more than that?
In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State, was asked on
national television what she felt about the fact that 5,00,000 Iraqi
children had died as a result of US economic sanctions. She replied that it
was "a very hard choice", but that all things considered, "we think the
price is worth it." Madeleine Albright never lost her job for saying this.
She continued to travel the world representing the views and aspirations of
the US government. More pertinently, the sanctions against Iraq remain in
place. Children continue to die.
So here we have it. The equivocating distinction between civilisation and
savagery, between the 'massacre of innocent people' or, if you like, 'a
clash of civilisations' and 'collateral damage'. The sophistry and
fastidious algebra of Infinite Justice. How many dead Iraqis will it take
to make the world a better place? How many dead Afghans for every dead
American? How many dead women and children for every dead man? How many
dead mujahideen for each dead investment banker?
As we watch mesmerised, Operation Infinite Justice unfolds on TV monitors
across the world. A coalition of the world's superpowers is closing in on
Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most ravaged, war-torn countries in the
world, whose ruling Taliban government is sheltering Osama bin Laden, the
man being held responsible for the September 11 attacks.
The only thing in Afghanistan that could possibly count as collateral value
is its citizenry. (Among them, half a million maimed orphans. There are
accounts of hobbling stampedes that occur when artificial limbs are
airdropped into remote, inaccessible villages.) Afghanistan's economy is in
a shambles. In fact, the problem for an invading army is that Afghanistan
has no conventional coordinates or signposts to plot on a military mapno
big cities, no highways, no industrial complexes, no water treatment
plants. Farms have been turned into mass graves. The countryside is
littered with landmines10 million is the most recent estimate. The American
army would first have to clear the mines and build roads in order to take
its soldiers in.
Fearing an attack from America, one million citizens have fled from their
homes and arrived at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As
supplies run outfood and aid agencies have been asked to leavethe BBC
reports that one of the worst humanitarian disasters of recent times has
begun to unfold. Witness the Infinite Justice of the new century. Civilians
starving to death, while they're waiting to be killed.
By contributing to the killing of Afghan civilians, the US government will
only end up helping the Taliban cause.
In America there has been rough talk of "bombing Afghanistan back to the
stone age". Someone please break the news that Afghanistan is already
there. And if it's any consolation, America played no small part in helping
it on its way. The American people may be a little fuzzy about where
exactly Afghanistan is (we hear reports that there's a run on maps of
Afghanistan), but the US government and Afghanistan are old friends. In
1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA and Pakistan's ISI
(Inter-Services Intelligence) launched the largest covert operation in the
history of the CIA. Their purpose was to harness the energy of Afghan
resistance to the Soviets and expand it into a holy war, an Islamic jehad,
which would turn Muslim countries within the Soviet Union against the
Communist regime and eventually destabilise it. When it began, it was meant
to be the Soviet Union's Vietnam. It turned out to be much more than that.
Over the years, the CIA funded and recruited almost 1,00,000 radical
mujahideen from 40 Islamic countries as soldiers for America's proxy war.
The rank and file of the mujahideen were unaware that their jehad was
actually being fought on behalf of Uncle Sam.(The irony is that America was
equally unaware that it was financing a future war against itself).
By 1989, after being bloodied by 10 years of relentless conflict, the
Russians withdrew, leaving behind a civilisation reduced to rubble. Civil
war in Afghanistan raged on. The jehad spread to Chechnya, Kosovo and
eventually to Kashmir. The CIA continued to pour in money and military
equipment, but the overheads had become immense, and more money was needed.
The mujahideen ordered farmers to plant opium as 'revolutionary tax'. The
ISI set up hundreds of heroin laboratories across Afghanistan. Within two
years of the CIA's arrival, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland had become
the biggest producer of heroin in the world, and the single biggest source
on American streets.
The annual profits, said to be between 100 and 200 billion dollars, were
ploughed back into training and arming militants.
In 1995, the Talibanthen a marginal sect of dangerous, hardline
fundamentalistsfought its way to power in Afghanistan. It was funded by the
ISI, that old cohort of the CIA, and supported by many political parties in
Pakistan. The Taliban unleashed a regime of terror. Its first victims were
its own people, particularly women. It closed down girls' schools,
dismissed women from government jobs, enforced Sharia laws in which women
deemed to be 'immoral' are stoned to death, and widows guilty of being
adulterous are buried alive. Given the Taliban government's human rights
track record, it seems unlikely that it will in any way be intimidated or
swerved from its purpose by the prospect of war, or the threat to the lives
of its civilians.
After all that has happened, can there be anything more ironic than Russia
and America joining hands to re-destroy Afghanistan? The question is, can
you destroy destruction? Dropping more bombs on Afghanistan will only
shuffle the rubble, scramble some old graves and disturb the dead.
The desolate landscape of Afghanistan was the burial ground of Soviet
Communism and the springboard of a unipolar world dominated by America. It
made the space for neo-capitalism and corporate globalisation, again
dominated by America. And now Afghanistan is poised to be the graveyard for
the unlikely soldiers who fought and won this war for America.
And what of America's trusted ally? Pakistan too has suffered enormously.
The US government has not been shy of supporting military dictators who
have blocked the idea of democracy from taking root in the country. Before
the CIA arrived, there was a small rural market for opium in Pakistan.
Between 1979 and 1985, the number of heroin addicts grew from zero to one
and a half million. There are three million Afghan refugees living in
tented camps along the border.
Pakistan's economy is crumbling. Sectarian violence, globalisation's
Structural Adjustment programmes and drug lords are tearing the country to
pieces. Set up to fight the Soviets, the terrorist training centres and
madrassas, sown like dragon's teeth across the country, produced
fundamentalists with tremendous popular appeal within Pakistan itself. The
Taliban, who the Pakistan government has supported, funded and propped up
for years, has material and strategic alliances with Pakistan's own
political parties. Now the US government is asking (asking?) Pakistan to
garrot the pet it has hand-reared in its backyard for so many years.
President Musharraf, having pledged his support to the US, could well find
he has something resembling civil war on his hands.
India, thanks in part to its geography, and in part to the vision of its
former leaders, has so far been fortunate enough to be left out of this
Great Game. Had it been drawn in, it's more than likely that our democracy,
such as it is, would not have survived. Today, as some of us watch in
horror, the Indian government is furiously gyrating its hips, begging the
US to set up its base in India rather than Pakistan. Having had this
ringside view of Pakistan's sordid fate, it isn't just odd, it's
unthinkable that India should want to do this. Any Third World country with
a fragile economy and a complex social base should know by now that to
invite a superpower like America in (whether it says it's staying or just
passing through) would be like inviting a brick to drop through your
In the media blitz that followed the September 11 events, no mainstream TV
station thought it fit to tell the story of America's involvement with
Afghanistan. So, to those unfamiliar with the story, the coverage of the
attacks could have been moving, disturbing and perhaps to cynics,
self-indulgent. However, to those of us who are familiar with Afghanistan's
recent history, American television coverage and the rhetoric of the
"International Coalition Against Terror" is just plain insulting. America's
'free press' like its 'free market' has a lot to account for.
Operation Infinite Justice is ostensibly being fought to uphold the
American Way of Life. It'll probably end up undermining it completely. It
will spawn more anger and more terror across the world. For ordinary people
in America, it will mean lives lived in a climate of sickening uncertainty:
will my child be safe in school? Will there be nerve gas in the subway? A
bomb in the cinema hall? Will my love come home tonight? Already CNN is
warning people against the possibility of biological warfaresmall pox,
bubonic plague, anthraxbeing waged by innocuous crop duster aircraft. Being
picked off a few at a time may end up being worse than being annihilated
all at once by a nuclear bomb.
The US government, and no doubt governments all over the world, will use
the climate of war as an excuse to curtail civil liberties, deny free
speech, lay off workers, harass ethnic and religious minorities, cut back
on public spending and divert huge amounts of money to the defence industry.
To what purpose? President George Bush can no more "rid the world of
evil-doers" than he can stock it with saints. It's absurd for the US
government to even toy with the notion that it can stamp out terrorism with
more violence and oppression. Terrorism is the symptom, not the disease.
Terrorism has no country. It's transnational, as global an enterprise as
Coke or Pepsi or Nike. At the first sign of trouble, terrorists can pull up
stakes and move their 'factories' from country to country in search of a
better deal. Just like the multinationals.
Terrorism as a phenomenon may never go away. But if it is to be contained,
the first step is for America to at least acknowledge that it shares the
planet with other nations, with other human beings, who, even if they are
not on TV, have loves and griefs and stories and songs and sorrows and, for
heaven's sake, rights. Instead, when Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence
Secretary, was asked what he would call a victory in America's New War, he
said that if he could convince the world that Americans must be allowed to
continue with their way of life, he would consider it a victory.
The September 11 attacks were a monstrous calling card from a world gone
horribly wrong. The message may have been written by Osama bin Laden (who
knows?) and delivered by his couriers, but it could well have been signed
by the ghosts of the victims of America's old wars.
The millions killed in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, the 17,500 killed when
Israelbacked by the USinvaded Lebanon in 1982, the 2,00,000 Iraqis killed
in Operation Desert Storm, the thousands of Palestinians who have died
fighting Israel's occupation of the West Bank. And the millions who died,
in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican
republic, Panama, at the hands of all the terrorists, dictators and
genocidists who the American government supported, trained, bankrolled and
supplied with arms.
And this is far from being a comprehensive list. For a country involved in
so much warfare and conflict, the American people have been extremely
fortunate. The strikes on September 11 were only the second on American
soil in over a century. The first was Pearl Harbour. The reprisal for this
took a long route, but ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This time the
world waits with bated breath for the horrors to come.
Someone recently said that if Osama bin Laden didn't exist, America would
have had to invent him. But, in a way, America did invent him. He was among
the jehadis who moved to Afghanistan in 1979 when the CIA commenced
operations. Osama bin Laden has the distinction of being created by the CIA
and wanted by the FBI. In the course of a fortnight, he has been promoted
from Suspect, to Prime Suspect, and then, despite the lack of any real
evidence, straight up the charts to being "wanted dead or alive".
From all accounts, it will be impossible to produce evidence (of the sort
that would stand scrutiny in a court of law) to link Osama bin Laden to the
September 11 attacks. So far, it appears that the most incriminating piece
of evidence against him is the fact that he has not condemned them.
From what is known about the location and the living conditions from which
Osama bin Laden operates, it's entirely possible that he did not personally
plan and carry out the attacksthat he is the inspirational figure, 'the CEO
of the Holding Company'.
The Taliban's response to US demands for the extradition of Osama bin Laden
has been uncharacteristically reasonable: Produce the evidence, we'll hand
him over. President Bush's response is that the demand is "non-negotiable".
(While talks are on for the extradition of CEOscan India put in a
side-request for the extradition of Warren Anderson of the USA? He was
Chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal gas leak that killed
16,000 people in 1984. We have collated the necessary evidence. It's all in
the files. Could we have him, please?)
But who is Osama bin Laden really?
Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden?
He's America's family secret. He is the American President's dark
doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and
civilised. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste
by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal,
its vulgarly stated policy of "full spectrum dominance", its chilling
disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its
support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda
that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of
locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the air we
breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think.
Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into
one another and gradually becoming interchangeable. Their guns, bombs,
money and drugs have been going around in the loop for a while. (The
Stinger missiles that will greet US helicopters were supplied by the CIA.
The heroin used by America's drug-addicts comes from Afghanistan. The Bush
administration recently gave Afghanistan a $43 million subsidy for a "war
on drugs"...) Now they've even begun to borrow each other's rhetoric. Each
refers to the other as 'the head of the snake'. Both invoke God and use the
loose millenarian currency of Good and Evil as their terms of reference.
Both are engaged in unequivocal political crimes. Both are dangerously
armedone with the nuclear arsenal of the obscenely powerful, the other with
the incandescent, destructive power of the utterly hopeless. The fireball
and the ice pick. The bludgeon and the axe. The important thing to keep in
mind is that neither is an acceptable alternative to the other.
President Bush's ultimatum to the people of the world"If you're not with
us, you're against us"is a piece of presumptuous arrogance.
It's not a choice that people want to, need to, or should have to make.
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