The Algebra of Infinite Justice
by Arundhati Roy
The Progressive magazine, December 2001
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. The American
people ought to know that it is not them, but their government's
policies, that are so hated.
Bush's almost god-like mission- called Operation Infinite
Justice until it was pointed out that this could be seen as an
insult to Muslims, who believe that only Allah can mete out infinite
justice, and was renamed Operation Enduring Freedom- requires
some small clarifications. For example, Infinite Justice/Enduring
Freedom for whom?
In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. Ambassador to the
United Nations, was asked on national television what she felt
about the fact that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result
of economic sanctions the U.S. insisted upon. She replied that
it was "a very hard choice," but that all things considered,
"we think the price is worth it." Albright never lost
her job for saying this. She continued to travel the world representing
the views and aspirations of the U.S. government. More pertinently,
the sanctions against Iraq remain in place. Children continue
So here we have it. The equivocating distinction between civilization
and savagery, between the "massacre of innocent people"
or, if you like, the "clash of civilizations" 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 children for every dead man? How many dead mujahedeen
for each dead investment banker?
The American people may be a little fuzzy about where exactly
Afghanistan is (we hear reports that there's a run on maps of
the country), but the U.S. 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 CIA's largest covert operation since the Vietnam War. Their
purpose was to harness the energy of Afghan resistance 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 destabilize 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, through the ISI, the CIA funded and recruited
tens of thousands of radical majahedeen from forty Islamic countries
as soldiers for America's proxy war. The rank and file of the
mujahedeen were unaware that their jihad was actually being fought
on behalf of Uncle Sam.
In 1989, after being bloodied by ten years of relentless conflict,
the Russians withdrew, leaving behind a civilization 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 overhead had
become immense, and more money was needed.
The mujahedeen ordered farmers to plant opium as a "revolutionary
Under the protection of the ISI, hundreds of heroin processing
laboratories were set up 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, were ploughed back into training
and arming militants.
In 1996, the Taliban-then a marginal sect of dangerous, hard-line
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 law-under which women deemed to be "immoral"
are stoned to death and widows guilty of being adulterous are
After all that has happened, can there be anything more ironic
than Russia and America joining hands to redestroy 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 globalization, again dominated by
America. And now Afghanistan is poised to become the graveyard
for the unlikely soldiers who fought and won this war for America.
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. After September 11, as some of us watched in horror,
the Indian government furiously gyrated its hips, begging the
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 such as America
in (whether it says it's staying or just passing through) would
be like inviting a brick to drop through your windscreen.
Operation Enduring Freedom is being fought ostensibly 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? Being picked off a few at
a time-now with anthrax, later perhaps with smallpox or bubonic
plague-may end up being worse than being annihilated all at once
by a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. government and governments all over the world are
using 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 defense industry. To what purpose? President Bush
can no more "rid the world of evildoers" than he can
stock it with saints.
It's absurd for the U.S. 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
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.
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 U.S.-invaded
Lebanon in 1982, the tens of thousands of 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
whom the American government supported, trained, bankrolled, and
supplied with arms. And this is far from being a comprehensive
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 Harbor. 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
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 jihadis who moved to Afghanistan
in 1979 when the CIA commenced its operations there. Bin Laden
has the distinction of being created by the CIA and wanted by
the FBI. In the course of a fortnight, he was promoted from Suspect
to Prime Suspect, and then, despite the lack of any real evidence,
straight up the charts to "Wanted: Dead or Alive."
From what is known about bin Laden, it's entirely possible
that he did not personally plan and carry out the attacks-that
he is the inspirational figure, "the CEO of the Holding Company."
The Taliban's response to U.S. demands for the extradition of
bin Laden was uncharacteristically reasonable: Produce the evidence,
then we'll hand him over. President Bush's response was that the
demand was "non-negotiable."
(While talks are on for the extradition of CEOs, can India
put in a side-request for the extradition of Warren Anderson of
the USA? He was the chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for
the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that killed 16,000 people. We have collated
the necessary evidence. It's all in the files. Could we have him,
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 civilized. 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 that 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. 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-"Either
you are with us or you are with the terrorists"-is a piece
of presumptuous arrogance.
It's not a choice that people want to, need to, or should
have to make.
Arundhati Roy is the author of "The God of Small Things"
(Random House, r 1997). Her most recent book is "Power Politics"
(South End Press, 2001). This piece is an excerpt from a longer
essay that appeared in The Guardian.