Buy One, Get One Free
By Arundhati Roy
Riverside Church, New York, NY
May 13, 2003
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 profound gift can I offer you tonight?
As we lurch from crisis to crisis, beamed directly into our brains by
satellite TV, we have to think on our feet. On 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 tonight? Some uncomfortable thoughts about money,
war, empire, racism, and democracy. Some worries that flit around my brain
like a family of persistent moths that k eep me awake at night.
Some of you will think it bad manners for a person like me, officially
entered in the Big Book of Modern 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 tonight I speak
as a subject of the American Empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to
criticize her king.
Since lectures must be called something, mine tonight is called:
Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free).
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 apposite: 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 September 11th 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
Qaida. 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," t hat hollow pillar on which contemporary American democracy rests.
Public support in the U.S. for the war against Iraq was founded on a
multi-tiered edifice of falsehood and deceit, coordinated by the U.S.
government and faithfully amplified by the corporate media.
Apart from the invented links between Iraq and Al Qaida, 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 U.S.
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, a.k.a. The United States Can Do Whatever The Hell It
Wants, And That's Official.
The war against Iraq has been fought and won and no Weapons of Mass
Destruction have been found. Not even a little one. Perhaps they'll have to
be planted before they're discovered. And then, the more troublesome
amongst us will need an explanation for why Saddam Hussein didn't use them
when his country was being invaded.
Of course, there'll be no answers. True Believers will make do with those
fuzzy TV reports about the discovery of a few barrels of banned chemicals
in an old shed. There seems to be no consensus yet about whether they're
really chemicals, whether they're actually banned and whether the vessels
they're contained in can technically be called barrels. (There were
unconfirmed rumours that a teaspoonful of potassium permanganate and an old
harmonica were found there too.)
Meanwhile, in passing, an ancient civilization has been casually decimated
by a very recent, casually br utal nation.
Then there are those who say, so what if Iraq had no chemical and nuclear
weapons? So what if there is no Al Qaida connection? So what if Osama bin
Laden hates Saddam Hussein as much as he hates the United States? Bush the
Lesser has said Saddam Hussein was a "Homicidal Dictator." And so, the
reasoning goes, Iraq needed a "regime change."
Never mind that forty years ago, the CIA, under President John F. Kennedy,
orchestrated a regime change in Baghdad. In 1963, after a successful coup,
the Ba'ath party came to power in Iraq. Using lists provided by the CIA,
the new Ba'ath regime systematically eliminated hundreds of doctors,
teachers, lawyers, and political figures known to be leftists. An entire
intellectual community was slaughtered. (The same technique was used to
massacre hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia and East Timor.) The
young Saddam Hussein was said to have had a hand in supervising the
bloodbath. In 1979, after factional infighting within the Ba'ath Party,
Saddam Hussein became the President of Iraq. In April 1980, while he was
massacring Shias, the U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinksi
declared, "We see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the
United States and Iraq." Washington and London overtly and covertly
supported Saddam Hussein. They financed him, equipped him, armed him, and
provided him with dual-use materials to manufacture weapons of mass
destruction. They supported his worst excesses financially, materially, and
morally. They supported the eight-year war against Iran and the 1988
gassing of Kurdish people in Halabja, crimes which 14 years later were
re-heated and served up as reasons to justify invading Iraq. After the
first Gulf War, the "Allies" fomented an uprising of Shi'as in Basra and
then looked away while Saddam Hussein crushed the revolt and slaughtered
thousands in an act of vengeful reprisal.
The point is, i f Saddam Hussein was evil enough to merit the most
elaborate, openly declared assassination attempt in history (the opening
move of Operation Shock and Awe), then surely those who supported him ought
at least to be tried for war crimes? Why aren't the faces of U.S. and U.K.
government officials on the infamous pack of cards of wanted men and women?
Because when it comes to Empire, facts don't matter.
Yes, but all that's in the past we're told. Saddam Hussein is a monster who
must be stopped now. And only the U.S. can stop him. It's an effective
technique, this use of the urgent morality of the present to obscure the
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