When late December comes around, the minds of writers on deadline often turn to the year just past, or perhaps the one about to come. I won’t be joining in this year—not because I dislike the practice, which can inspire great writing—but because recent headlines bring to mind neither 2014 nor 2015, but rather 2002.
Think about it. Earlier this month, Dick Cheney surfaced to proclaim the Senate torture report’s findings “full of crap.” And in the wake of this weekend’s murder of two NYPD officers, Rudy Giuliani accused Mayor de Blasio, Attorney General Holder, and President Obama of “perpetuating a myth that there is systemic police brutality,” linking the murders to “four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.” “I don’t care how you want to describe it,” Giuliani insisted. “That’s what those protests are all about.” Giuliani and Cheney in the headlines: it feels like 2002 all over again.
On reflection, though, maybe not. Yes, polling data suggests that a disturbing number of Americans are not so far from some of Dick Cheney’s views on torture. But Cheney’s authority on national security has waned considerably in recent years—as recently as 2009, he still had the power to spark widespread debate by accusing Obama of “dithering” in Afghanistan. That sway has now disappeared. Similarly, Giuliani’s remarks have been in many quarters, if not all, greeted with eyerolls and unfriendly “fact checks.” It was not so long ago that Giuliani enjoyed much wider respectability as “America’s Mayor”—or, as TIME dubbed him in December 2001 (while naming him Person of the Year), “Mayor of the World.” Reporting that Giuliani had pulled a Churchill biography off his shelf the night of September 11th, the article gushed: “There is a bright magic at work when one great leader reaches into the past and finds another waiting to guide him.”
It may read a bit oddly today, but that praise is far easier to understand in context. People really were comforted on that day by Giuliani’s solid demeanor. And that same context helps illuminate why the reappearance of Cheney and Giuliani in 2014 has a slightly jarring feel: we are now engaging in long-overdue scrutiny of those who defend public safety—whether they are intelligence officers or police officers. Giuliani’s hysterical assertions aside, this scrutiny has nothing to do with hating the police. We expect police officers and intelligence agents to keep us safe, but (in our nobler moments) we also expect them to adhere to our best aspirations. An abundance of evidence shows that they are, all too often, failing to do that. We have different public leaders today, and a public that seems slightly less inclined to defer to uniforms than it was a decade or so ago. If Cheney and Giuliani seem flabbergasted at the gall of their successors—de Blasio, Holder, Obama, or any other leader who acknowledges the need for change—it’s because they are artifacts of an era when that kind of scrutiny was often quashed, with terrible results.