Retaliation is a trap. In a world that was supposed to have learnt that the rule of law comes above revenge, President Bush appears to be heading for the very disaster that Osama bin Laden has laid down for him. Let us have no doubts about what happened in New York and Washington last week. It was a crime against humanity. We cannot understand America's need to retaliate unless we accept this bleak, awesome fact. But this crime was perpetrated - it becomes ever clearer - to provoke the United States into just the blind, arrogant punch that the US military is preparing.
Mr bin Laden - every day his culpability becomes more apparent - has described to me how he wishes to overthrow the pro-American regime of the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia and moving on to Egypt, Jordan and the other Gulf states. In an Arab world sunk in corruption and dictatorships - most of them supported by the West - the only act that might bring Muslims to strike at their own leaders would be a brutal, indiscriminate assault by the United States. Mr bin Laden is unsophisticated in foreign affairs, but a close student of the art and horror of war. He knew how to fight the Russians who stayed on in Afghanistan, a Russian monster that revenged itself upon its ill-educated, courageous antagonists until, faced with war without end, the entire Soviet Union began to fall apart.
The Chechens learnt this lesson. And the man responsible for so much of the bloodbath in Chechnya ñ the career KGB man whose army is raping and murdering the insurgent Sunni Muslim population of Chechnya - is now being signed up by Mr Bush for his "war against people''. Vladimir Putin must surely have a sense of humour to appreciate the cruel ironies that have now come to pass, though I doubt if he will let Mr Bush know what happens when you start a war of retaliation; your army - like the Russian forces in Chechnya - becomes locked into battle with an enemy that appears ever more ruthless, ever more evil.
But the Americans need look no further than Ariel Sharon's futile war with the Palestinians to understand the folly of retaliation. In Lebanon, it was always the same. A Hizbollah guerrilla would kill an Israeli occupation soldier, and the Israelis would fire back in retaliation at a village in which a civilian would die. The Hizbollah would retaliate with a Katyusha missile attack over the Israeli border, and the Israelis would retaliate again with a bombardment of southern Lebanon. In the end, the Hizbollah ñ the "centre of world terror'' according to Mr Sharon ñ drove the Israelis out of Lebanon.
In Israel/Palestine, it is the same story. An Israeli soldier shoots a Palestinian stone-thrower. The Palestinians retaliate by killing a settler. The Israelis then retaliate by sending a murder squad to kill a Palestinian gunman. The Palestinians retaliate by sending a suicide bomber into a pizzeria. The Israelis then retaliate by sending F-16s to bomb a Palestinian police station. Retaliation leads to retaliation and more retaliation. War without end.
And while Mr Bush - and perhaps Mr Blair - prepare their forces, they explain so meretriciously that this is a war for "democracy and liberty'', that it is about men who are "attacking civilisation''. "America was targeted for attack,'' Mr Bush informed us on Friday, "because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.'' But this is not why America was attacked. If this was an Arab-Muslim apocalypse, then it is intimately associated with events in the Middle East and with America's stewardship of the area. Arabs, it might be added, would rather like some of that democracy and liberty and freedom that Mr Bush has been telling them about. Instead, they get a president who wins 98 per cent in the elections (Washington's friend, Mr Mubarak) or a Palestinian police force, trained by the CIA, that tortures and sometimes kills its people in prison. The Syrians would also like a little of that democracy. So would the Saudis. But their effete princes are all friends of America - in many cases, educated at US universities.
I will always remember how President Clinton announced that Saddam Hussein - another of our grotesque inventions ñ must be overthrown so that the people of Iraq could choose their own leaders. But if that happened, it would be the first time in Middle Eastern history that Arabs have been permitted to do so. No, it is "our'' democracy and "our'' liberty and freedom that Mr Bush and Mr Blair are talking about, our Western sanctuary that is under attack, not the vast place of terror and injustice that the Middle East has become.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Nineteen years ago today, the greatest act of terrorism - using Israel's own definition of that much misused word - in modern Middle Eastern history began. Does anyone remember the anniversary in the West? How many readers of this article will remember it? I will take a tiny risk and say that no other British newspaper - certainly no American newspaper - will today recall the fact that on 16 September 1982, Israel's Phalangist militia allies started their three-day orgy of rape and knifing and murder in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila that cost 1,800 lives. It followed an Israeli invasion of Lebanon ñ designed to drive the PLO out of the country and given the green light by the then US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig ñ which cost the lives of 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinians, almost all of them civilians. That's probably three times the death toll in the World Trade Centre. Yet I do not remember any vigils or memorial services or candle-lighting in America or the West for the innocent dead of Lebanon; I don't recall any stirring speeches about democracy or liberty. In fact, my memory is that the United States spent most of the bloody months of July and August 1982 calling for "restraint".
No, Israel is not to blame for what happened last week. The culprits were Arabs, not Israelis. But America's failure to act with honour in the Middle East, its promiscuous sale of missiles to those who use them against civilians, its blithe disregard for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions of which Washington is the principal supporter ñ all these are intimately related to the society that produced the Arabs who plunged America into an apocalypse of fire last week.
America's name is literally stamped on to the missiles fired by Israel into Palestinian buildings in Gaza and the West Bank. Only four weeks ago, I identified one of them as an AGM 114-D air-to-ground rocket made by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin at their factory in ñ of all places ñ Florida, the state where some of the suiciders trained to fly.
It was fired from an Apache helicopter (made in America, of course) during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when hundreds of cluster bombs were dropped in civilian areas of Beruit by the Israelis in contravention of undertakings given to the United States. Most of the bombs had US Naval markings and America then suspended a shipment of fighter bombers to Israel ñ for less than two months.
The same type of missile - this time an AGM 114-C made inGeorgia - was fired by the Israelis into the back of an ambulance near the Lebanese village of Mansori, killing two women and four children. I collected the pieces of the missile, including its computer coding plate, flew to Georgia and presented them to the manufacturers at the Boeing factory. And what did the developer of the missile say to me when I showed him photographs of the children his missile had killed? "Whatever you do," he told me, "don't quote me as saying anything critical of the policies of Israel."
I'm sure the father of those children, who was driving the ambulance, will have been appalled by last week's events, but I don't suppose, given the fate of his own wife - one of the women killed - that he was in a mood to send condolences to anyone. All these facts, of course, must be forgotten now.
Every effort will be made in the coming days to switch off the "why'' question and concentrate on the who, what and how. CNN and most of the world's media have already obeyed this essential new war rule. I've already seen what happens when this rule is broken. When The Independent published my article on the connection between Middle Eastern injustice and the New York holocaust, the BBC's 24-hour news channel produced an American commentator who remarked that "Robert Fisk has won the prize for bad taste''. When I raised the same point on an Irish radio talk show, the other guest, a Harvard lawyer, denounced me as a bigot, a liar, a "dangerous man'' and - of course - potentially anti-Semitic. The Irish pulled the plug on him.
No wonder we have to refer to the terrorists as "mindless''. For if we did not, we would have to explain what went on in those minds. But this attempt to censor the realities of the war that has already begun must not be permitted to continue. Look at the logic. Secretary of State Colin Powell was insisting on Friday that his message to the Taliban is simple: they have to take responsibility for sheltering Mr bin Laden. "You cannot separate your activities from the activities of the perpetrators,'' he warned. But the Americans absolutely refuse to associate their own response to their predicament with their activities in the Middle East. We are supposed to hold our tongues, even when Ariel Sharon - a man whose name will always be associated with the massacre at Sabra and Shatila - announces that Israel also wishes to join the battle against "world terror''.
No wonder the Palestinians are fearful. In the past four days, 23 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza, an astonishing figure that would have been front-page news had America not been blitzed. If Israel signs up for the new conflict, then the Palestinians - by fighting the Israelis - will, by extension, become part of the "world terror'' against which Mr Bush is supposedly going to war. Not for nothing did Mr Sharon claim that Yasser Arafat had connections with Osama bin Laden.
I repeat: what happened in New York was a crime against humanity. And that means policemen, arrests, justice, a whole new international court at The Hague if necessary. Not cruise missiles and "precision'' bombs and Muslim lives lost in revenge for Western lives. But the trap has been sprung. Mr Bush - perhaps we, too - are now walking into it. -