My statement that the New Barbarians pose a bigger threat to the Western civilization than Al Qaeda (and also than islamic fundamentalism, nuclear proliferation, rogue states or any other external enemy) has raised some eyebrows. I will try to explain.
The point is not whether more Americans (or West-Europeans) and foreign civilians have perished or are at risk because of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld policies (or those of their allies in Europe) than due to, say, terrorist attacks over the same period. While the case could be made, the point isn't about the body count. Rather, it's about the nature of the threat.
A civilization tends to firm up its characteristics when at war with external enemies. In historical perspective, a manageable degree of external adversity is quite healthy; it is helpful in maintaining the vitality of a culture, in nourishing a society's attachment to its core values. This is human nature: we define ourselves not just through positive identification, but also through contrast and opposition.
So Al Qaeda can kill Westerners, but will never be able, through this, to dislocate what we call the Western civilization, e.g. to force Western countries to abandon liberal democracy as their governance principle and adopt instead sharia law. On the contrary, the more Westerners it kills, the firmer the commitment of the remaining ones to the values that distinguish them and put them in opposition with what Al Qaeda represents.
Incidentally, the same of course applies the other way around: the US will never be able to export its values by force, e.g. to bomb a country into democracy.
But the bottom line is that as long as an external foe does not pose an immediate threat of total physical annihilation, anything short of that only helps a civilization become more cohesive and more conscious about its distinctive characteristics.
The real, mortal danger comes when a civilization's core values are compromised from the inside. When the very things that distinguish it from its enemies are trampled by those who claim to be their defendants. When those who make the decisions at the centre give away moral superiority for the sake of some temporary tactical advantage. When in the fog of war one forgets what he or she ultimately stands for and morphs into something else.
In absolute, atemporal logic, this is the biggest threat for a civilization: to lose or compromise its core principles. From there on, it's only a matter of time before it succumbs to historical erosion.
It is widely recognized that the Abu Ghraib pictures served to catalyze anti-Western hate in the Middle East and were a powerful recruitment tool for terrorists. I agree with that.
But there is an infinitely more ominous meaning of Abu Ghraib and other occurrences of this kind: they are an indicator of the internal pathology of Western civilization.