“The Algebra Of Infinite Justice”
BY ARUNDHATI ROY
Published in October 08, 2001
Arundhati Roy, Indian writer and activist, author of Booker-Prize Winning novel “The God Of Small Things”
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 checks…
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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 dominance—the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—were 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 things—to 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 welcomed. 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…
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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 mission—Operation Infinite Justice—it 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 500,000 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?
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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 map—no big cities, no highways, no industrial complexes, no water treatment plants. Farms have been turned into mass graves. The countryside is littered with landmines—10 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 out—food and aid agencies have been asked to leave—the 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.
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 jihad, 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 100,000 radical mujahideen from 40 Islamic countries as soldiers for America’s proxy war. The rank and file of the mujahideen were unaware that their jihad 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 jihad 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 Taliban—then a marginal sect of dangerous, hardline fundamentalists—fought 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.
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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 warfare—small pox, bubonic plague, anthrax—being 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…
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 Israel—backed by the US—invaded Lebanon in 1982, the 200,000 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.
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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”.
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 armed—one 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.”
ARUNDATHI ROY – Read the full article “Algebra of Infinite Justice”