2001 : WHAT NOW?

freeman_dyson's picture
Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study; Author, Disturbing the Universe; Maker of Patterns
Professor of physics at the Institute

Here are some thoughts about the disaster and our reactions to it. They don't answer your question, but perhaps it may be helpful to look at these events in a wider context. 

The day after the disaster, I had lunch with an Austrian friend. He talked about the events of July 1914 after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Many people in the Austrian government, including the Emperor, felt that this act of terrorism should be handled diplomatically. But the newspapers were screaming for war against Serbia, using the same rhetoric that we hear today. The Serbian government is sheltering the terrorists and must be punished. The world must know that the Austro Hungarian Empire is a great power and capable of defending its interests. Since we can't make war on the terrorists, we must make war on Serbia for helping the terrorists. This barrage of patriotic frenzy in the newspapers continued for four weeks, and finally pushed the government to take the disastrous steps that led to the outbreak of World War One at the end of July. In many ways, our present state of mind is uncomfortably similar to July 1914 in Vienna.

The events of September 11 brought to mind another vivid and uncomfortable memory. I am sixteen years old, lying in bed at my home in London on a noisy night in September 1940. I am violently hostile to the British Empire and everything it stands for. I hate London, the citadel of oppression, with its grandiose buildings sucking the wealth from every corner of the world. I lie in bed listening to the bombs exploding and the buildings crumbling. What joy to hear, after each explosion, the delicious sound of buildings falling down, the great British Empire audibly crumbling. The joy far outweighs any fear that my own home might be hit, or any pity for the people in the falling buildings. How many sixteen-year-olds all over the world are now seeing on television the pictures of the World Trade Center buildings collapsing, and feeling the same joy that I felt in 1940. I find it easy to imagine the state of mind of the young men who so resolutely smashed those planes into the buildings. Almost, I could have been one of them myself.

The only wisdom that I can extract from these memories is that the problem of terrorism is not a military problem. It is a problem of people's hearts and minds. Attempts to solve it by military means will only make it worse. I don't pretend to know how to solve it. A good way to start would be for our country to stop telling the rest of the world how to behave. We must learn to live with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. We must treat our enemies with respect, so that we do not appear to be trampling on their cultures and traditions. The ultimate goal must always be, not to destroy our enemies but to convert them into friends. And meanwhile, do whatever we can to defend ourselves without killing more thousands of innocent victims.