So the unposted draft that I alluded to a few days ago contained some muddled, half-formed thoughts about civilization vs. barbarism. These turned out to be somewhat topical with the recent death of Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden was a barbarian and he met a gruesome end, as many barbarians often do.

Now let me be very clear that Osama bin Laden was not a barbarian because of his race, religion, or culture. He was a barbarian because some fraction of people, through time and across cultures, decide that they will do whatever it takes to get what they want, even if it means destroying lives, property, or society.

And, in some very rare occasions, the destroying of lives, property, and society becomes the end in itself. So it was with Osama bin Laden.

For those of us on the side of civilization, the manner in which we deal with barbarians is a huge issue. It is, in fact, in existential one, insofar as it shapes our society in deep and lasting ways. Civilizations have to deal with barbarians much the same way that organisms have to deal with viruses and other pathogenic agents. Organisms have immune systems, civilizations have law and culture.

And just as immune systems can often deal poorly with pathogens, causing afflictions worse than the pathogen itself, or can even misconstrue harmless material as a pathogen and attack it, damaging the body in the process, so too civilization can deal well or poorly with barbarism.

I think it’s high time to admit that we, as a civilization, are not dealing well with one strain of pathogenic barbarism. The damage that we have done to our society in the name of fighting terrorism is far worse than the disease of terrorism itself. Our response to terrorism has cost us more American lives than has terrorism. It has cost us more money and productivity than has terrorism. It has damaged our freedom in deep and enduring ways that terrorism never could.

So, in a perverse way, we’re helping the terrorists get their way. The immune systems of our society, its legal and cultural bulwarks against cheats, thugs, and murderers, is doing more damage the Body of the Republic than are the barbarians themselves.

In the case of someone so virulent as Osama bin Laden, Radley Balko is right: he won. We saw to that.

We cannot end terrorism anymore than we can end the larger problem of barbarism. What we can do, however, is to make sure that our responses to it are healthy, effective and appropriate. Because if we don’t, then we’ll be spending our time groping Miss America1 and bombing weddings in the Third World. Which is exactly what the barbarians would be doing, if they had their druthers.

So is the world a better place because Osama bin Laden’s no longer able to murder people and destroy their livelihoods? Yes. I think that it is.

But was he in any way the biggest threat to our security or liberty? No. That would be our overblown, heavy-handed response to his perfidy. The only thing that can do more damage to society than barbarism, is deliberate self-destruction under the guise of protecting ourselves from barbarism.


1 Jesus, but is there any more potent metaphor for what’s wrong in America right now than a slack-jawed TSA goon pawing at Miss America and claiming that it’s a good thing because “shut up, security something something don’t let the terrorists win!”