How have we got to this point, where two western governments take us into an illegal and immoral war against a stricken nation with whom we have no quarrel and who offer us no threat: an act of aggression opposed by almost everybody and whose charade is transparent?
How can they attack, in our name, a country already crushed by more than 12 years of an embargo aimed mostly at the civilian population, of whom 42 per cent are children - a medieval siege that has taken the lives of at least half a million children and is described as genocidal by the former United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq?
How can those claiming to be "liberals" disguise their embarrassment, and shame, while justifying their support for George Bush's proposed launch of 800 missiles in two days as a "liberation"? How can they ignore two United Nations studies which reveal that some 500,000 people will be at risk? Do they not hear their own echo in the words of the American general who said famously of a Vietnamese town he had just levelled: "We had to destroy it in order to save it"?
"Few of us," Arthur Miller once wrote, "can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied."
These days, Miller's astuteness applies to a minority of warmongers and apologists. Since 11 September 2001, the consciousness of the majority has soared. The word "imperialism" has been rescued from agitprop and returned to common usage. America's and Britain's planned theft of the Iraqi oilfields, following historical precedent, is well understood. The false choices of the cold war are redundant, and people are once again stirring in their millions. More and more of them now glimpse American power, as Mark Twain wrote, "with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other".
What is heartening is the apparent demise of "anti-Americanism" as a respectable means of stifling recognition and analysis of American imperialism. Intellectual loyalty oaths, similar to those rife during the Third Reich, when the abusive "anti-German" was enough to silence dissent, no longer work. In America itself, there are too many anti-Americans filling the streets now: those whom Martha Gellhorn called "that life-saving minority who judge their government in moral terms, who are the people with a wakeful conscience and can be counted upon".
Perhaps for the first time since the late 1940s, Americanism as an ideology is being identified in the same terms as any rapacious power structure; and we can thank Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice for that, even though their acts of international violence have yet to exceed those of the "liberal" Bill Clinton.
"My guess," wrote Norman Mailer recently, "is that, like it or not, or want it or not, we are going to go to war because that is the only solution Bush and his people can see. The dire prospect that opens, therefore, is that America is going to become a mega-banana republic where the army will have more and more importance in our lives. And, before it is all over, democracy, noble and delicate as it is, may give way . . . Indeed, democracy is the special condition that we will be called upon to defend in the coming years. That will be enormously difficult because the combination of the corporation, the military and the complete investiture of the flag with mass spectator sports has set up a pre-fascist atmosphere in America already."
In the military plutocracy that is the American state, with its unelected president, venal Supreme Court, silent Congress, gutted Bill of Rights and compliant media, Mailer's "pre-fascist atmosphere" makes common sense. The dissident American writer William Rivers Pitt pursues this further. "Critics of the Bush administration," he wrote, "like to bandy about the word 'fascist' when speaking of George. The image that word conjures is of Nazi storm troopers marching in unison towards Hitler's Final Solution. This does not at all fit. It is better, in this matter, to view the Bush administration through the eyes of Benito Mussolini. Dubbed 'the father of fascism', Mussolini defined the word in a far more pertinent fashion. 'Fascism,' he said, 'should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power.' "
Bush himself offered an understanding of this on 26 February when he addressed the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute. He paid tribute to "some of the finest minds of our nation [who] are at work on some of the greatest challenges to our nation. You do such good work that my administration has borrowed 20 such minds. I want to thank them for their service."
The "20 such minds" are crypto-fascists who fit the definition of William Pitt Rivers. The institute is America's biggest, most important and wealthiest "think-tank". A typical member is John Bolton, under-secretary for arms control, the Bush official most responsible for dismantling the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, arguably the most important arms control agreement of the late 20th century. The institute's strongest ties are with extreme Zionism and the regime of Ariel Sharon. Last month, Bolton was in Tel Aviv to hear Sharon's view on which country in the region should be next after Iraq. For the expansionists running Israel, the prize is not so much the conquest of Iraq but Iran. A significant propor-tion of the Israeli air force is already based in Turkey with Iran in its sights, waiting for an American attack.
Richard Perle is the institute's star. Perle is chairman of the powerful Defence Policy Board at the Pentagon, the author of the insane policies of "total war" and "creative destruction". The latter is designed to subjugate finally the Middle East, beginning with the $90bn invasion of Iraq.
Perle helped to set up another crypto-fascist group, the Project for the New American Century. Other founders include Vice-President Cheney, the defence secretary Rumsfeld and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The institute's "mission report", Rebuilding America's Defences: strategy, forces and resources for a new century, is an unabashed blueprint for world conquest. Before Bush came to power, it recommended an increase in arms spending by $48bn so that America "can fight and win multiple, simultaneous major theatre wars". This has come true. It said that nuclear war-fighting should be given the priority it deserved. This has come true. It said that Iraq should be a primary target. And so it is. And it dismissed the issue of Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" as a convenient excuse, which it is.
Written by Wolfowitz, this guide to world domination puts the onus on the Pentagon to establish a "new order" in the Middle East under unchallenged US authority. A "liberated" Iraq, the centrepiece of the new order, will be divided and ruled, probably by three American generals; and after a horrific onslaught, known as Shock and Awe.
Vladimir Slipchenko, one of the world's leading military analysts, says the testing of new weapons is a "main purpose" of the attack on Iraq. "Nobody is saying anything about it," he said last month. "In May 2001, in his first presidential address, Bush spoke about the need for preparation for future wars. He emphasised that the armed forces needed to be completely high-tech, capable of conducting hostilities by the no-contact method. After a series of live experiments - in Iraq in 1991, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan - many corporations achieved huge profits. Now the bottom line is $50-60bn a year."
He says that, apart from new types of cluster bombs and cruise missiles, the Americans will use their untested pulse bomb, known also as a microwave bomb. Each discharges two megawatts of radiation which instantly puts out of action all communications, computers, radios, even hearing aids and heart pacemakers. "Imagine, your heart explodes!" he said.
In the future, this Pax Americana will be policed with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons used "pre-emptively", even in conflicts that do not directly engage US interests. In August, the Bush administration will convene a secret meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, to discuss the construction of a new generation of nuclear weapons, including "mini nukes", "bunker busters" and neutron bombs. Generals, government officials and nuclear scientists will also discuss the appropriate propaganda to convince the American public that the new weapons are necessary.
Such is Mailer's pre-fascist state. If appeasement has any meaning today, it has little to do with a regional dictator and everything to do with the demonstrably dangerous men in Washington. It is vitally important that we understand their goals and the degree of their ruthlessness. One example: General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani dictator, was last year deliberately allowed by Washington to come within an ace of starting a nuclear war with India - and to continue supplying North Korea with nuclear technology - because he agreed to hand over al-Qaeda operatives. The other day, John Howard, the Australian prime minister and Washington mouthpiece, praised Musharraf, the man who almost blew up west Asia, for his "personal courage and outstanding leadership".
In 1946, Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, said: "The very essence of the Nuremberg charter is that individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience imposed by the state."
With an attack on Iraq almost a certainty, the millions who filled London and other capitals on the weekend of 15-16 February, and the millions who cheered them on, now have these transcendent duties. The Bush gang, and Tony Blair, cannot be allowed to hold the rest of us captive to their obsessions and war plans. Speculation on Blair's political future is trivia; he and the robotic Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon must be stopped now, for the reasons long argued in these pages and on hundreds of platforms.
And, incidentally, no one should be distracted by the latest opportunistic antics of Clare Short, whose routine hints of "rebellion", followed by her predictable inaction, have helped to give Blair the time he wants to subvert the UN.
There is only one form of opposition now: it is civil disobedience leading to what the police call civil unrest. The latter is feared by undemocratic governments of all stripes.
The revolt has already begun. In January, Scottish train drivers refused to move munitions. In Italy, people have been blocking dozens of trains carrying American weapons and personnel, and dockers have refused to load arms shipments. US military bases have been blockaded in Germany, and thousands have demonstrated at Shannon which, despite Ireland's neutrality, is being used by the US military to refuel its planes en route to Iraq.
"We have become a threat, but can we deliver?" asked Jessica Azulay and Brian Dominick of the American resistance movement. "Policy-makers are debating right now whether or not they have to heed our dissent. Now we must make it clear to them that there will be political and economic consequences if they decide to ignore us."
My own view is that if the protest movement sees itself as a world power, as an expression of true internationalism, then success need not be a dream. That depends on how far people are prepared to go. The young female employee of the Gloucestershire-based top-secret Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who was charged this month with leaking information about America's dirty tricks operation on members of the Security Council, shows us the courage required.
In the meantime, the new Mussolinis are on their balconies, with their virtuoso rants and impassioned insincerity. Reduced to wagging their fingers in a futile attempt to silence us, they see millions of us for the first time, knowing and fearing that we cannot be silenced.