Arundhati Roy: 'terrorism is the symptom not the disease'

Issue 

The Algebra of Infinite Justice
By Arundhati Roy

Flamingo, 2002
305 pages, $21.95 (pb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

"How many dead Iraqis will it take to make the world a better place?", asks a waspishly angry Arundhati Roy in The Algebra of Infinite Justice. The half a million or so Iraqi children who have died as a result of US-enforced United Nations economic sanctions since 1991 is apparently still not enough for some — Madelaine Albright, former US ambassador to the UN said "the price is worth it" in 1996. Political inflation has upped the cost and now it will take hundreds of thousands more Iraqi lives.

US governments have spent prodigious amounts of (other people's) lives in what President George Bush Jr has called: "the calling of the United States of America. The most free nation in the world. A nation built on fundamental values; that rejects hate, rejects violence, rejects murderers and rejects evil."

Unconvinced, Roy notes that since 1945, the US has bombed millions to death in 20 countries, either unilaterally or by proxy in a coalition of the "international community".

The massive toll of deaths has not, observes Roy, brought freedom and security to the world but has brought "subjugation in the service of America's real religion, the 'free market'". Washington's bible is the "favourable investment climate", its holy land is the Arab Middle East, where the number one commandment — thou shalt secure America's "strategic interest in oil" — holds fanatical sway.

Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of the novel, The God of Small Things, has turned her gaze from one family's world in India to the family of humanity in The Algebra of Infinite Justice, a collection of her political essays.

Reflecting on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Washington's military response in Afghanistan ("yet another act of terror in which each innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set off against, the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York and Washington"), Roy deftly punctures the myth that the Bush-defined "enemies of America" are the "enemies of freedom".

The choice of targets on September 11 — the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rather than the Statue of Liberty — were symbols of the USA's economic and military dominance.

However politically misshapen and morally twisted by Al Qaeda and other terrorists, the anger that led to the terrorist attacks has "its tap root not in American freedom and democracy, but in the US government's record of commitment and support to exactly the opposite things" which has resulted in millions being killed by the US or "at the hands of all the terrorists, dictators and genocidists who the American government supported, trained, bankrolled and supplied with arms".

Bombing Afghanistan (or Iraq) will not stamp out non-state terrorism because such terrorism cannot be stamped out with more violence and oppression — "terrorism is the symptom, not the disease". You may as well douse a fire by pouring on petrol. State terrorism committed by the "International Coalition Against Terror", headed by Bush and supported by "America's favourite Ambassador, Tony Blair" — will only create more non-state terrorists.

They will mirror their creators, like Osama bin Laden who 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 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."

While Bush is armed with massive US military firepower, bin Laden is armed with the "destructive power of the utterly hopeless" — suicide bombers recruited from "those suffering conditions which oblige them to be single-minded — decades lived in a Palestinian refugee camp, for example", or driven into al Qaeda's embrace after Operation Infinite Justice has been delivered in the form of a cluster bomb. The terrorists' ranks are swelled by those who have for decades endured what the White House and Pentagon call "freedom" and is experienced as poverty and the theft of economic livelihood.

The 40% of India's people who live in absolute poverty (400 million of them) have long-endured the rich world's "freedom" to make profits; their numbers grow as more of the country's rural population are forced into the urban slums. They are economic casualties of the US$20 billion dollar a year "international dam industry" and other "development" projects foisted on India.

Forty per cent of all the "big dams" built in the world — 3300 of them — are in India, with 700 more under construction. Big dams alone have displaced around 50 million Indian villagers since independence in 1947.

This mad scramble for mega-development profits — and kickbacks for their state sponsors — has been sold as delivering India from flood, drought, poverty and hunger. What it has delivered is homelessness, destitution, ecological disaster and economic disaster, as the country is forced to incur new debts with the World Bank to repay old ones.

The Indian people have not given up without a fight, however. The Narmada Valley Development Project stood to displace hundreds of thousands of people. They formed a resistance movement in 1986, pledging to drown rather than move. Despite police repression (Roy was one of those arrested in a 4000-strong march to occupy one of the dam sites in 2000), their campaign forced the World Bank to quit the project in 1993. This was a stunning victory ("no-one has ever managed to make the World Bank step back from a project before, least of all a ragtag army of the poorest people in one of the world's poorest countries") before the state government of Gujarat (which stepped into finance the project) and the Supreme Court rescued the situation and delivered more "Project Affected Persons (PAPs)" to the slums of India's cities.

Delhi let out its girth to squeeze in some more PAPs. Being largely illiterate, the PAPs were never to have the "good fortune" of those in Delhi's Call Centre Colleges, where thousands of young English-speaking Indians are trained to speak with American or British, even Australian, accents to staff the customer relations operations of the giant transnational — at 10% of the wages of their counterparts abroad.

"India has progressed but her people haven't", Roy laments. To Roy, the most obscene sign of "progress" in a country ranked 138th out of 175 in the UN Human Development Index is the nuclear bomb. May 1998 marked India's entry into the nuclear club with the test explosion of its first nuclear bomb.

It's no joking matter but Roy can't help a bitter chuckle at the Indian media's headlines: "An explosion of self-esteem", "We are not eunuchs anymore" and "We have superior strength and potency" (the latter being a quote from India's minister for defence comparing India's nuclear explosive yield to Pakistan's).

Roy found it hard to tell when they were "referring to Viagra (which was competing for second place on the front pages) and when they were talking about the bomb".

India's problems seem immense, from nuclear weapons to religious fascism, from big dams to female infanticide, but Roy celebrates the dogged resistance so often hidden from the Western corporate media's view. The terrorism of the powerful and the terrorism of the dispossessed does not have to be the Hobson's choice facing the world's poor.

Roy is an exceptionally talented writer and her political essays are beautifully crafted, stingingly polemical and achingly compassionate. With writing like this on our side, the struggle "to make the world a better place" won't be an unequal battle.

From Green Left Weekly, February 12, 2003.
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