Once Upon a Time in 2002

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

For over a year after the murder of 3,000 innocent people in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, shell-shocked Americans were gripped by other horrific images of terrorism across the globe.

Palestinian suicide bombers blew up Israeli civilians during a renewed intifada. Pakistani terrorists attacked India’s parliament over the disputed Kashmir region. Other terrorists in Pakistan beheaded U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl.

Islamists killed over 200 at a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia. Chechnyan separatists stormed a Moscow theater and took over 800 hostages; over 100 died before the nightmare was over.

In the U.S., John Allen Mohammed and his young partner were busy murdering citizens in counties adjoining Washington, D.C. — a city still jittery from anonymous anthrax-laced letters sent in late 2001 to various media organizations and two senators.

In other words, Americans in 2002 were scared of the spreading worldwide conflagration of radical Islam, and looked to the president to keep them safe. And he did — to bipartisan applause of most in government.

By the end of Nov. 2002, the Bush administration had created the new Department of Homeland Security. We all began removing belts and shoes, as well as surrendering any liquids in our carry-on luggage, at the airport. Air marshals began flying selected routes. The recently passed Patriot Act allowed American anti-terrorism agents to intercept phone calls and e-mails of suspected jihadists.

At the newly opened Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, jihadists were detained. While specific dates of who was briefed when concerning the waterboarding of certain detainees is now being debated, it seems clear that select members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, became aware of the practice — and that no objections were publicly voiced.

And former Clinton Justice Department official Eric Holder — now the attorney general — even declared in a 2002 interview that none of the terrorists detained at Guantanamo were protected by the Geneva Convention statutes concerning prisoners of war.

In Oct. 2002, Congress, with a majority of both Democratic senators and representatives, authorized the removal of Saddam Hussein.

A number of liberal journalists also endorsed the Iraq war. By Nov. 2002, after almost two years in office, George Bush enjoyed an approval rating of over 60 percent.

Now, seven years later, we live in a different world. Since then, some unforeseen events have transpired — and other predicted events have not.

The U.S. has not been attacked again in the manner of 9/11 — although almost all terrorist experts had assured us we would be.

After a three-week victory in Iraq that removed Saddam Hussein and won the support of nearly 80 percent of the American people, an insurgency grew that would eventually claim over 4,000 American lives. Terrorists almost toppled Iraq’s nascent democracy until Gen. David P. Petraeus’ troop “surge” quelled the violence.

By then, politics had begun to change. Most who called for invading Iraq long ago abandoned their own zeal and advocacy — and loudly blamed the Bush administration for the violence of the postwar occupation. (Now, they are largely silent about the quiet in Iraq that the Obama administration inherited.)

Of course, had we suffered another major terrorist attack between 2001-09, critics would have damned the Bush administration for its perceived laxity as vehemently as they now do in quieter times for its supposed extremism.

Opportunism, not principles, guides most in Washington. Almost no proponents of the Iraq war withdrew their support right after the successful three-week effort to remove Saddam. Had there been little Iraqi violence during the transition to democracy, former supporters would probably still be vying to take credit for the war’s success.

Consider also the dexterous Obama administration’s own about-face. It still finds it useful to damn the old Bush government’s embrace of wiretaps, military tribunals and renditions — even as it dares not drop or completely discount these apparently useful Bush policies, albeit under new names and with new qualifiers.

What does this political opportunism teach us?

If we get hit again by a major terrorist attack, you can bet that today’s cooing doves will flip a third time and revert to the screeching hawks of 2002 — and once again scream that their president must do something to keep us safe.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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