“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
(W.B. Yeats – The Second Coming, 1919)
In the afternoon of November 4, 2000, I stood on the very top of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City and looked over the edge, rigid with fear. I’ve never had a head for heights. Even sitting in a cinema, watching an actor pretending to stand on a window ledge high above the ground, I’d find myself absurdly pushing back into my chair as hard as I could for fear of falling. On that day, however, I was the actor and Manhattan lay before me like a carpet; Brooklyn and Queens lay across the East River; Jersey across the Hudson, the Bronx was too far away to be seen through the layer of pollution hovering over the city; and Staten Island was behind me, momentarily out of sight. But my fear and fascination was straight down, in the Plaza far below.
Later, I went downstairs to the cafeteria and drank a cup of coffee to steady myself. Then I went to the gift shop and bought a T-shirt for my wife; an NYPD T-shirt. It was a private joke.
On the morning of September 12, 2001, Australian Eastern Standard Time, I watched a television news broadcast in horror and disbelief as people plummeted from the upper floors of the World Trade Center. I could remember what it had felt like to look down from the top of the South Tower to the Plaza below. I could recall the fear that had made me recoil from the edge. But I couldn’t imagine what would have to go through a person’s mind, what absolute terror, what visions of Hell, what abject despair, or abysmal feelings of hopelessness would persuade them that they had no choice but to leap from there to certain death; and what would flash through their minds in the seconds it took from when the decision to jump was made until the impact with the ground brought everything to a sudden and violent end. Was the lady who made my coffee among them; or the girl who had sold me the T-shirt? I will never know. But as I watched the horror unfold, I knew that if they had been at work that day, they almost certainly would have perished in one unthinkable way or another.
A year or so later, I went to a shoe shop to buy a new pair of sneakers. When the transaction was completed, the shop assistant asked if I would like to wear the new ones home, offering to dispose of my old sneakers, which were close to disintegration by then. I declined the offer, saying that these old sneakers had stood where no man will ever stand again. I didn’t elaborate further, because he didn’t seem particularly interested in hearing the reason. But you know why. And it just didn’t seem right.
What is it that enables someone to justify or support or even condone such a monstrous act of atrocity; the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent people? Leila Khaled, dubbed by the media the poster-girl for the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), once said: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, implying that no one is totally innocent, we must all accept responsibility for the problem and take action to remedy it.
I met Leila Khaled once, briefly, on a train in England, many years ago. She was travelling with a male companion; I was travelling alone; and we fell into conversation as young travellers often do. I didn’t know she was Leila Khaled until I saw her on the news a few days later and realised that the young woman being interviewed was the one I had met on the train. She was charismatic. Not beautiful in a glamorous way; but there was something alluring about her. And the conversation we had was similar to many I’d had on the road. Where do you come from? Where have you been? Where are you going? At the time, I’d assumed that she was just another traveller. There had been no mention of hijacking aircraft or bombing buildings or setting up terrorist cells. We parted company at Waterloo. I didn’t even ask for her address, assuming that she and her male companion were a couple. And I never saw her again, except on the news and in the newspapers. Being on the road is an existential experience. You meet, you journey together in whatever way seems appropriate at the time; and you part. If you ever meet again, it is with the same guiding hand of chance as your first meeting. Leila Khaled had seemed quite ordinary to me; and the brief time I spent in her company was pleasant but unremarkable. I had no inkling then that she was an international terrorist.
I have no desire to take sides, because the fact that sides exist seems to me to ensure that conflict persists; and only when we reject the concept of sides can we embrace the notion that collective ownership of a problem is the most effective way to end the destructive cycle of act and reprisal. So, up to a point, I agree with Leila Khaled – we must all take responsibility. But as I see it, while there are a great many good people in the world who pursue justice with purity and sincerity, there are others with a propensity for violence, who attach themselves to causes in order to legitimise, in their own minds and to others, the expression of that violence, whether it is perpetrated by their own hand, or by the hands of those they manipulate to do their bidding. And in my mind, it is they who foster division; it is they who exploit the down-trodden; it is they who perpetuate the misery of those they purport to champion; it is they who pervert the goodness in Man; it is they who prevent the world from becoming a better place.
Dedicated to the memory of the lady who made me coffee and the girl who sold me the T-shirt that day in the World Trade Center in New York. I will always remember your kindness and courtesy.