Seize the Time
by Arundhati Roy
In These Times magazine,
In these times, when we have to race to
keep abreast of the speed at which our freedoms are being snatched
from us, and when few can afford the luxury of retreating from
the streets for a while in order to return with an exquisite,
fully formed political thesis replete with footnotes and references,
what gift can I offer you?
As we lurch from crisis to crisis, beamed
directly into our brains by satellite TV, we have to think on
our feet. ()n the move. We enter histories through the rubble
of war. Ruined cities, parched fields, shrinking forests, and
dying rivers are our archives, craters left by daisy cutters,
So, what can I offer you? Some uncomfortable
thoughts about money, war, empire, racism and democracy. Some
worries that flit around my brain like a family of persistent
moths that keep me awake at night.
You may think it is bad manners for a
person like me, officially entered in the Big Book of Modem Nations
as an "Indian citizen," to come here and criticize the
U.S. government. Speaking for myself, I'm no flag-waver, no patriot,
and am fully aware that venality, brutality and hypocrisy are
imprinted on the leaden soul of every state. But when a country
ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the
scale of operations changes dramatically. So may I clarify that
I speak as a subject of the American Empire? I speak as a slave
who presumes to criticize her king.
Way back in 1988, on the 3rd of July,
the U.S.S. Vincennes, a missile cruiser stationed in the Persian
Gulf, accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner and killed 290
civilian passengers. George Bush the First, who was, at the time,
on his presidential campaign, was asked to comment on the incident.
He said quite subtly, "I will never apologize for the United
States. I don't care what the facts are."
I don't care what the facts are. What
a perfect maxim for the New American Empire. Perhaps a slight
variation on the theme would be more appropriate: The facts can
be whatever we want them to be. When the United States invaded
Iraq, a New York Times/CBS News survey estimated that 42 percent
of the American public believed that Saddam Hussein was directly
responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon. And an ABC News poll said that 55 percent of Americans
believed that Saddam Hussein directly supported al-Qaeda.
None of this opinion is based on evidence
(because there isn't any). All of it is based on insinuation,
auto-suggestion, and outright lies circulated by the U.S. corporate
media, otherwise known as the "free press," that hollow
pillar on which contemporary American democracy rests. The era
of manufacturing consent has given way to the era of manufacturing
news. Soon media newsrooms will drop the pretense, and start hiring
theater directors instead of journalists. And as America's show
business gets more violent and war-like, America's wars get more
like show business. The designer who built the $250,000 set in
Qatar from which Gen. Tommy Franks stage-managed news coverage
of Operation Shock and Awe also built sets for Disney, MGM and
Good Morning America.
Public support in the United States for
the war against Iraq was founded on a multi-tiered edifice of
falsehood and deceit, coordinated by the U.S. government and faithfully
the corporate media. Apart from the invented
links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, we had the manufactured frenzy
about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. George Bush the Lesser
; went to the extent of saying it would be "suicidal"
for the United States not to attack Iraq. We once again witnessed
the paranoia that a starved, bombed, besieged country was | about
to annihilate almighty America.
Iraq was only the latest in a succession
of countries-_ earlier there was Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya, Grenada
and Panama. But this time it wasn't just your ordinary brand of
friendly neighborhood frenzy. It was Frenzy with a Purpose. It
ushered in an old doctrine in a new bottle: The Doctrine of Pre-emptive
Strike, i.e., the United States Can Do Whatever the Hell It Wants,
and That's Official. Meanwhile, in passing, an ancient civilization
has been casually decimated by a very recent, casually brutal
Attorney General John Ashcroft recently
declared that U.S. freedoms are "not the grant of any government
or document, but ... our endowment from God." Why bother
with the United Nations when God himself is on hand?
So here we are, the people of the world,
confronted with an empire armed with a mandate from heaven (and,
as added insurance, the most formidable arsenal of weapons of
mass destruction in history). Here we are, confronted with an
empire that has conferred upon itself the right to go to war at
will, and the right to deliver people from corrupting ideologies,
from religious fundamentalists, dictators, sexism, and poverty
by the age-old, tried-and-tested practice of extermination. Empire
is on the move, and "Democracy" is its sly new war cry.
Democracy, home-delivered to your doorstep by daisy cutters. Death
is a small price for people to pay for the privilege of sampling
this new product. InstantMix Imperial Democracy: bring to a boil,
add oil, then bomb.
Before the war on Iraq began, the Office
of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) sent the
Pentagon a list of 16 crucial sites to protect. The National Museum
was second on that list. Yet the museum was not just looted, it
It was a repository of an ancient cultural
heritage. Iraq as we know it today was part of the river valley
of Mesopotamia. The civilization that grew along the banks of
the Tlgris and the Euphrates produced the world's first writing,
first calendar, first library, first city, and, yes, the world's
first democracy. King Hammurabi of Babylon was the first to codify
laws governing the social life of citizens. It was a code in which
abandoned women, prostitutes, slaves, and even animals had rights.
The Hammurabi code is acknowledged not just as the birth of legality,
but the beginning of an understanding of the concept of social
justice. The U.S. government could not have chosen a more inappropriate
land in which to stage its illegal war and display its grotesque
disregard for justice.
Democracy, the modern world's holy cow,
is in crisis. And the crisis is profound. Every kind of outrage
is being committed in the name of democracy. Democracy has become
little more than a hollow word, a pretty shell, emptied of all
content or meaning. It can be whatever you want it to be. Democracy
is the Free World's whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing
to satisfy a whole range of taste, available to be used and abused
Democracy did once seem as though it might
actually succeed in delivering a degree of real social justice.
But modern democracies have been around for long enough for neoliberal
capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the
technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy-the "independent"
judiciary, the "free" press, the parliament-and molding
them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization
has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent
judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to
commodities on sale to the highest bidder.
It is a cruel irony that the United States,
which has the most ardent, vociferous defenders of the idea of
free speech, and (until recently) the most elaborate legislation
to protect it, has so circumscribed the space in which that freedom
can be expressed. In a strange, convoluted way, the sound and
fury that accompanies the legal and conceptual defense of free
speech in America serves to mask the process of the rapid erosion
of the possibilities of actually exercising that freedom. The
news and entertainment industry in America is almost entirely
controlled by a few major corporations-AOL-Time Warner, Disney,
Viacom, News Corporation. Each of these corporations owns and
controls TV stations, film studios, record companies, and publishing
ventures. Effectively, the exits are sealed. And yet Chairman
of the Federal Communications Commission Michael Powell, the son
of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has instituted even further
deregulation of the communication industry, which will lead to
even greater consolidation.
So here it is-the World's Greatest Democracy,
led by a man who was not legally elected. What price have the
American people paid for this spurious presidency?
In the three years of George Bush the
Lesser's term, the American economy has lost more than 2 million
jobs. Outlandish military expenses, corporate welfare, and tax
giveaways to the rich have created a financial crisis for the
U.S. educational system. According to a survey by the National
Council of State Legislatures, U.S. states cut $49 billion in
public services, health, welfare benefits, and education in 2002.
They plan to cut another $25.7 billion this year. That makes a
total of $75 billion. Bush's initial budget request to Congress
to finance the war in Iraq was $80 billion.
So who's paying for the war? America's
poor. Its students, its unemployed, its single mothers, its hospital
and home care patients, its teachers, and health workers. And
who will benefit from it? Who is homing in on the reconstruction
contracts worth up to $100 billion? Could it be America's poor
and unemployed and sick? Could it be America's single mothers?
Or America's black and Latino minorities?
Operation Iraqi Freedom, George Bush assures
us, is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people. That is,
returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via Bechtel, Chevron and
Halliburton. Once again, it is a small, tight circle that connects
corporate, military, and government leadership to one another.
The promiscuousness, the cross-pollination, is outrageous. Consider
this: The Defense Policy Board is a government-appointed group
that advises the Pentagon. Its members are appointed by the undersecretary
of defense and approved by Donald Rumsfeld. Its meetings are classified.
No information is available for public scrutiny.
The Washington-based Center for Public
Integrity found that 9 out of the 30 members of the Defense Policy
Board are connected to companies that were awarded defense contracts
worth $76 billion between the years 2001 and 2002. One of them,
Jack Sheehan, a retired Marine Corps general, is a senior vice
president at Bechtel, the giant international engineering outfit.
Riley Bechtel, the company chairman, is on President Bush's Export
Council. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who is also
on the board of directors of the Bechtel Group, is the chairman
of the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
When asked by the New York Times whether he was concerned about
the appearance of a conflict of interest, he said, "I don't
know that Bechtel would particularly benefit from it. But if there's
work to be done, Bechtel is the type of company that could do
So Iraq is being groomed for "liberation."
(Or did they mean "liberalization" all along?) The Wall
Street Journal reports that "the Bush administration has
drafted sweeping plans to remake Iraq's economy in the U.S. image."
Iraq's constitution is being redrafted, its trade laws, tax laws,
and intellectual property laws rewritten in order to turn it into
an American-style capitalist economy. The United States Agency
for International Development has invited U.S. companies to bid
for contracts that range between road building, water systems,
text book distribution, and cell phone networks.
Soon after Bush the Lesser announced that
he wanted American farmers to feed the world, Dan Amstutz, a former
senior executive of Cargill, the biggest grain exporter in the
world, was put in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq.
Kevin Watkins, Oxfam's policy director, said, "Putting Dan
Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like
putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission."
The two men who have been short-listed to run operations for managing
Iraqi oil have worked with Shell, BP, and Fluor. Fluor is embroiled
in a lawsuit by black South African workers who have accused the
company of exploiting and brutalizing them during the apartheid
era. Shell, of course, is well known for its devastation of the
Ogoni tribal lands in Nigeria.
Tom Brokaw, one of America's best-known
TV anchors, was inadvertently succinct about the process. "One
of the things we don't want to do," he said, "is to
destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we're
going to own that country." Now that the ownership deeds
are being settled, Iraq is ready for New Democracy. So, as Lenin
used to ask: What is to be done? Well ...
We might as well accept the fact that
there is no conventional military force that can successfully
challenge the American war machine. Terrorist strikes only give
the U.S. government an opportunity it is eagerly awaiting to further
tighten its stranglehold. To argue against U.S. military aggression
by saying that it will increase the possibilities of terrorist
strikes is futile. It's like threatening Brer Rabbit that you'll
throw him into the bramble bush. Any one who has read the documents
written by The Project for the New American Century can attest
The government's suppression of the congressional
committee report on September 11, which found that there was intelligence
warning of the strikes that was ignored, also attests to the fact
that, for all their posturing, the terrorists and the Bush regime
might as well be working as a team. They both hold people responsible
for the actions of their governments. They both believe in the
doctrine of collective guilt and collective punishment. Their
actions benefit each other greatly.
The U.S. government has already displayed
in no uncertain terms the range and extent of its capability for
paranoid aggression. In human psychology, paranoid aggression
is usually an indicator of nervous insecurity. It could be argued
that it's no different in the case of the psychology of nations.
Empire is paranoid because it has a soft underbelly. Its "homeland"
may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons, but its
economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts
are exposed and vulnerable. Already the Internet is buzzing with
elaborate lists of American and British government products and
companies that should be boycotted. Apart from the usual targets-Coke,
Pepsi, McDonald's-government agencies like USAID, the British
DIFID, British and American banks, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch,
and American Express could find themselves under siege. These
lists are being honed and refined by activists across the world.
They could become a practical guide that directs the amorphous
but growing fury in the world. Suddenly, the "inevitability"
of the project of Corporate Globalization is beginning to seem
more than a little evitable.
It would be naive to imagine that we can
directly confront empire. Our strategy must be to isolate empire's
working parts and disable them one by one. No target is too small.
No victory too insignificant. We could reverse the idea of the
economic sanctions imposed on poor countries by empire and its
allies. We could impose a regime of "peoples' sanctions"
on every corporate house that has been awarded with a contract
in postwar Iraq, just as activists in this country and around
the world targeted institutions of apartheid. Each one of them
should be named, exposed, and boycotted. Forced out of business.
That could be our response to Shock and Awe. It would be a great
Another urgent challenge is to expose
the corporate media for the boardroom bulletin that it really
is. We need to create a universe of alternative information. The
battle to reclaim democracy is going to be a difficult one. Our
freedoms were not granted to us by any governments. They were
wrested from them by us. And once we surrender them, the battle
to retrieve them is called a revolution. It is a battle that must
range across continents and countries. It must not acknowledge
national boundaries but, if it is to succeed, it has to begin
here. In America. The only institution more powerful than the
U.S. government is American civil society. The rest of us are
subjects of slave nations. We are by no means powerless, but you
have the power of proximity. You have access to the Imperial Palace
and the emperor's chambers. Empire's conquests are being carried
out in your name, and you have the right to refuse. You could
refuse to fight. Refuse to move those missiles from the warehouse
to the dock. Refuse to wave that flag. Refuse the victory parade.
You have a rich tradition of resistance.
Hundreds of thousands of you have survived the relentless propaganda
you have been subjected to, and are actively fighting your own
government. In the ultra-patriotic climate that prevails in the
United States, that's as brave as any Iraqi or Afghan or Palestinian
fighting for his or her homeland. If you join the battle, not
in your hundreds of thousands, but in your millions, you will
be greeted joyously by the rest of the world. And you will see
how beautiful it is to be gentle instead of brutal, safe instead
of scared. Befriended instead of isolated. Loved instead of hated.
I hate to disagree with your president.
Yours is by no means a great nation. But you could be a great
people. History is giving you the chance. Seize the time.
This essay was adapted from a May 17 speech
sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (www.cesr.org)
at Riverside Church in New York. Arundhati Roy's books, War Talk
and Power Politics, are available at www.southendpress.org.