The fireball and the ice pick

Arundhati Roy

New Delhi. As we watch mesmerized, Operation Enduring Freedom unfolds on television 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).

Afghanistan's economy is in a shambles. The United Nations estimates that there are 7.5 million Afghan citizens who will need emergency aid. As supplies run out -- food and aid agencies have been evacuated -- 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.

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 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.

The unconscionable September 11 attacks were a monstrous calling card from a world gone horribly wrong. The message may have been written by 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 17,000 killed when Israel -- backed by the United States -- 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 who the U.S. government supported, trained, bankrolled and supplied with arms. And this is far from the being a comprehensive list.

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 jihadists who moved to Afghanistan in 1979 when the CIA commenced its operations there. Bin Laden had the distinction of being created by the CIA and wanted by the FBI.

From what is known about the location of bin Laden and the living conditions where he operates, 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 "nonnegotiable."

(It's a shame that, while talks were on for the extradition of CEOs, India didn't put in a side request for the extradiction of Warren Anderson of the United States. He was the chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak, which killed 16,000 people. 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 U.S. 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 U.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 take 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 now greet U.S. helicopters were supplied by the CIA. The heroin used by U.S. drug addicts comes from Afghanistan. The Bush administration recently gave Afghanistan a $43 million subsidy for its "war on drugs.")

Now Bush and bin Laden have even begun to borrow each other's rhetoric. Both invoke God and use the loose millenarian currency of Good and Evil as their terms of reference. 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 ax. 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 lives in New Delhi and is the author of "The God of Small Things." Her newest book is "Power Politics" (South End Press).

Articles and Reprints

Subway Guitars
1800 Cedar Street
Berkeley, California 94703

Telephone: (510) 841-4106
noon til six Pacific Time
Monday through Saturday