Let me begin with my personal memories of 9/11. I was visiting New Jersey for two weeks and 9/11 was the day in the very middle of that period. More importantly, 9/11/2001 was the day of my PhD defense at Rutgers. It started at 9:30 am, about 43 kilometers from the World Trade Center.
I woke up at around 8:00 am in what used to be my office (equipped with an airbed) - the housing did not work out and it would be too far from the Physics Department anyway. I took a shower and then opened the e-mail. At 9:00 am, an e-mail message from a Czech friend of mine contained a copy of the report of the Czech Press Agency (CTK) about the first airplane abused in New York.
It sounded very bizarre. Nevertheless, it was completely clear to me that it was true. Another e-mail said that the second tower had been hit. I was conveying the message to the people around and no one believed me, except for a few guys who had already heard it on radio. Well, I grabbed an overhead projector and started to defend.
At the beginning, I said that two airplanes were hijacked and used to attack the Twin Towers by the terrorists. Some members of the committee did not believe it. The thesis continued as expected. 30 seconds before it ended, Edward Witten appeared in the room and told me that he liked the defense.
He was giving a seminar at Rutgers the same day. As far as I remember, it was about the G_2 holonomy manifolds. Before the seminar we had a toast to celebrate my PhD. It was one of the most painful toasts in my life. I made a comment that we may remember that day not only as one of the most disastrous days in the U.S. history, but perhaps also as a day of an interesting seminar by Edward Witten at Rutgers. Witten said that he wished I would have had never used his name in that sentence.
From the highest floor of the math department, we were able to see smoke above Manhattan. The elevators were switched off.
It was only after the defense when we saw the first pictures and videos and the full psychological impact started to affect our minds. People, especially my advisor Tom Banks, were making predictions that our way of life had to change. Although some security measures had to be tightened after 9/11, my feeling today is that these scenarios were exaggerated. Many servers such as CNN.COM were overloaded, and because I (incorrectly) thought that all such servers had to be down, I developed a new website (click) that contained pictures and translations of the basic stories from the Czech internet media that worked fine. The website had thousands of visits within a couple of hours.
I am not sure about you but I was silently frustrated and also upset. My anger was not directed exclusively at the small group of terrorists because they were just a tip of the anti-American and anti-capitalist iceberg. For example, a Czech journalist called Pecina published an article in which he endorsed the attacks against the U.S. Later he argued that it was a way to prove his journalistic independence.
I wrote him an e-mail that argued that the main differences between him and Al Qaeda is that most members of Al Qaeda were born in problematic conditions; and most of them are, unlike Pecina, able to sacrifice their lives for their sick ideas; on the other hand, Pecina has similar goals and emotions and is expressing them in a society where he knows that he can't be punished. This "hate mail" was published and it still appears among the best Google's hits if you search for my name. Needless to say, I would write a similar mail again if the context were similar.
The casualties were often estimated to top 10,000 people. I made a bet that the total number would exceed 10,000. Fortunately, I lost this bet. A week after the attacks, I tried to see Wall Street but the air was still so unpleasant that I did not make it to the Ground Zero.
About three years later, Madrid was also attacked by the terrorists and Al Qaeda helped to elect the Spanish socialists whose relations with Al Qaeda were widely viewed as the more friendly ones. The number of casualties was smaller by an order of magnitude.
The casualties in yesterday's attacks against the city of London seem to be one order of magnitude lower still. While it is still an alarming number of lost lives, the counting suggests that the capabilities of Al Qaeda to end lives are going down the hill. Let's hope that these attacks reflect the typical maximum scale what they can do today. You know, the impact is not so different from a lunetic with an automatic gun who simply starts to shoot as many people as possible in the subway.
London was just chosen to host the 2012 olympics (54 vs 50 for Paris). It's very likely that some votes would have been missing if the vote took place after the attacks and Paris would win instead. Great Britain also succeeded Luxembourg to become the semi-annual leader of the European Union. The Reference Frame officially supports Tony Blair's major policies (with the exception of the climate change agenda). Undoubtedly, Margaret Thatcher is one of the great living examples for the "labourist" Tony Blair and he is doing great steps not exactly to match her greatness but at least to become a comparable leader.
Unfortunately, it is this kind of a leader and his country who is likely to become a target of the acts of human trash such as Osama bin Laden and his disciples.
Some friends of mine are very frustrated by the London attacks. They say that the world is so bad that it is not worth living here. I don't know how to cure these feelings; the best thing I can do with them is to disagree. The world as of 2005 is a pretty good one. Look into the history textbooks and you will see that our world is better than it was at most moments in the past. 65 years ago, it was common sense in most of Europe that people should be killed if they were Jews. 500 years ago, you could have been executed for stating that the Earth orbits around the Sun or for trying to figure out how the guts or the brains work; today it is much better because you will only get a "lack of confidence" vote for the same thing.
The successors of the Inquisition may be obnoxious, but they are not directly threatening your life. (My apologies go to the sexual deviant and killer from the University of Delaware who counts as an exception.) Al Qaeda is a successor of the mass famines, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Except that it is killing many fewer people than the diseases did. And much like in the case of the diseases, we are getting better in fighting with these threats.
A few million years ago, you would be eaten by another mammal if you did one error. 14.3 billion years ago (without 300,000 years), the global warming was so bad that you could not even form the Hydrogen atom. 3 minutes after the Big Bang, all the nuclei would be transmuting into each other all the time. One Planck time after the Big Bang, even the very concept of space and time would be so crippled that even the best string theorists from 2005 could not tell you what to do - even what (and how) you should calculate.
Let me summarize. We should not expect that some threats and annoying things will disappear completely. Moreover, I think that the desire to eliminate an annoying thing completely underlies most totalitarian ideologies. There will always be some risks and some threats. In the case of the terrorists, virtually all of us realize that they are a real problem and we are trying to deal with it. But don't forget that the risks will never disappear totally because it would violate the uncertainty principle. Just like an evil dog can bite you on the street and kill you, you may also be killed by a lunetic (terrorist) in the subway. The probability is small in both cases. And many people are employed to keep the vacuum expectation value of the rate of such deaths low enough.
The terrorists and their ideas and ideals simply cannot be dominating over the world of the 3rd millenium.