For more than a year after the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, shellshocked 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 more than 200 at a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia. Chechen separatists stormed a Moscow theater and took more than 800 hostages; more than 100 died before the nightmare was over.
In the United States, John Allen Muhammad and his young partner were busy murdering people in counties adjoining Washington, with the 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 from most in government.
By the end of November 2002, the George W. 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 airports. Air marshals began flying selected routes. The recently passed Patriot Act allowed American anti-terrorism agents to intercept the phone calls and e-mails of suspected jihadists.
At the newly opened Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, jihadists were detained. Though specific dates of who was briefed when concerning the waterboarding of certain detainees is 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 voiced publicly.
Former Clinton Justice Department official Eric H. Holder Jr. - now the attorney general - even declared in a 2002 interview that none of the terrorists detained at Guantanamo was protected by the Geneva Convention statutes concerning prisoners of war.
In October 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 November 2002, after almost two years in office, President Bush enjoyed an approval rating of more than 60 percent.
Now, seven years later, we live in a different world. Since then, some unforeseen events have transpired - and some predicted events have not.
The United States has not been attacked again in the manner of Sept. 11 - though almost all terrorist experts assured us we would be.
After a three-week victory in Iraq that removed Saddam and won the support of nearly 80 percent of the American people, an insurgency grew that eventually would claim more than 4,000 American lives. Terrorists almost toppled Iraq’s nascent democracy until Gen. David H. Petraeus’ troop surge quelled the violence.
By then, politics had begun to change. Most who had called for invading Iraq long ago abandoned their 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 and 2009, 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 probably would 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 being the screeching hawks of 2002 - and once again scream that their president must do something to keep us safe.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.