Like almost everyone, I want to believe that the attack on New York was the work of a single despot and his obedient commando. But the more evidence United States intelligence presents to this effect, the less credible the story becomes.
First there was the car. A man had informed the police, we were told, that he'd had a furious argument with some suspicious looking Muslims in the parking lot at Boston airport. He led investigators to the car, in which they found a copy of the Koran and a flight manual in Arabic, showing that these were the fundamentalists who had hijacked one of the planes. Now, flying an airplane is not one of those things you learn in the back of a car on the way to the airport. Either you know how to do it or you don't. Leaving the Koran unattended, a Muslim friend tells me, is considered sinful. And if you were about to perpetrate one of the biggest terrorist outrages the world has ever seen, would you draw attention to yourself by arguing over a parking place?
Then there was the passport. The security services claim that a passport belonging to one of the hijackers was extracted from the rubble of the World Trade Center. This definitive identification might help them to track the rest of the network. We are being asked to believe that a paper document from the cockpit of the first plane - the epicenter of an inferno which vaporized steel - survived the fireball and fell to the ground almost intact.
When presented with material like this, I can't help suspecting that intelligence agents have assembled the theory first, then sought the facts required to fit it. I think there are grounds to suggest that the attacks were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists, even if we don't know precisely who they were. But why do the agents appear to be overdressing their case?
It's partly, I think, because they need to show that they are not as clueless as their failure to predict the atrocity suggests. But it's also because, understandably enough, they want a discrete and discernible enemy to confront, a structure they can penetrate, a membership they can round up, and a figure whose personal evil is commensurate with the crime.
Partly as a result of this wishful thinking, the west found itself in a curious position last week. The Taliban, possibly the most brutal and barbaric regime on earth, was requesting evidence before considering Osama bin Laden's extradition: they insisted that he was innocent until proven guilty. The west, in the name of civilization, was insisting that Bin Laden was guilty, and it would find the evidence later.
For these reasons and many others (such as the initial false certainties about the Oklahoma bombing and the Sudanese medicine factory, and the identification of live innocents as dead terrorists), I think we have some cause to regard the new evidence against Bin Laden with a measure of skepticism. There is no question that he is dangerous, and there is convincing evidence connecting him to previous attacks, but if the west starts chasing the wrong man across the Hindu Kush while the real terrorists are planning their next atrocity, this hardly guarantees our security.
The British minister Peter Hain argued on these pages yesterday that "the values that the terrorists attacked last week were human rights, democracy and the rule of law". If this is so, then the terrorists have won already. The presumption of innocence is just one of the human rights both Mr Hain and Mr Bush appear prepared to abandon in response to the attacks. Operation Infinite Justice begins with the renunciation of justice. The force Bush and Blair have mobilized is a gigantic death squad, dispatched to enact extrajudicial executions.
Already the deployment has almost certainly killed more innocent people than the terrorist outrage in New York. The UN world food program has pulled out of a country in which 5.5m are at imminent risk of starvation. The victims are invisible, their language incomprehensible, so the world neither knows nor cares.
At a huge anti-war meeting in London on Friday, I saw just how unfairly we objectors have been characterized. When I described what happened in New York as a crime against humanity, only one person in the hall demurred ("It was self-defense!"), and he was immediately shouted down by what appeared to be the entire audience. No one suggested that the victims of the attack deserved what they got. No one advocated the appeasement of terrorists. But, just as the militarists need a single, Hitler-like figure to launch their new world war, they also need to invoke a fabled set of beliefs which allows the peace campaigners to be dismissed before they have been heard.
But in one respect we have not, perhaps, made ourselves sufficiently clear. Assuming the unassumable, namely that Bin Laden was responsible and that he and his lieutenants are still in Afghanistan, how would we deal with them? The answer is obvious: let's cut out the world war and go straight to Nuremburg.
This begs the question, of course, of how we would extract the defendants. I believe that this is a lot less complicated than the militarists have made it. Until a few years ago, the Afghan people regarded the western powers as their allies, as they fought to rid themselves of Soviet occupation. We squandered their goodwill when we encouraged the Taliban to move in as an ideological bulwark against communism. But reclaiming it, in Afghanistan's desperate circumstances, is surely only a matter of months.
Vast humanitarian interventions, dragging the population back from the brink of famine, would show the people that, unlike the Taliban, the west is on their side. The Taliban thrive on the fear of outsiders, which, as far as Afghans are concerned, has so far been amply justified. If the outside world proves that it is friendly, not hostile, the regime's grip begins to weaken. As the debilitated population begins to recover, the Taliban's chances of retaining power will be approximately zero. Bin Laden, long hated and feared by most Afghans, would be handed over just as soon as they could grab him.
All this, of course, will take time, and it's not hard to see why the American people want instant results. But justice requires patience, and infinite justice requires infinite patience. The great advantage of this strategy is that it's safe. Far from spawning future conflicts, it is likely to defuse them. Far from immersing a new generation in hatred of the west, it's likely to inculcate a hatred of those who would deprive them of friendly contact with outsiders. Far from triggering off fundamentalist uprisings all over the Muslim world, it could lead to a new understanding between cultures, even a sense of common purpose. The likes of Bin Laden would then have nowhere to hide.
And there is an accidental by-product, which has nothing to do with the west's strategic objectives. Rather than killing thousands of civilians, we would save the lives of millions. Let's make this the era of collateral repair.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001