Once upon a train


“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.


13 thoughts on “Once upon a train

  1. It is almost impossible to write about 9/11 without “taking sides,” but you do it very powerfully here. I read this and wept, and I had to rest for a while and regroup my forces before I could attempt a comment. I agree that taking sides adds to the conflict. And I agree that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. And I a glad you kept your shoes. Thank you for writing this.

  2. there was a deep and profound sadness in America when President John Kennedy was assassinated and it was repeated shortly thereafter when Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down. subsequent violence involved jack ruby, shooting at close range and killing, JFK’s assassin; and the assassination of Robert Kennedy, as he walked through the kitchen of a california hotel. these last two incidents were carried as live news feeds … I was a teenager at the time and remarkably, happened to see both as they originally unfolded. the times were surreal and mind numbing even at that early age. I mention the above because they were major events, with significant impact on our country and perhaps on our history as well.

    I was also watching the news on the morning of 9.11 and turned to the screen just in time to see the second plane approaching. I yelled profanities at no one in particular and watched the impact in horror. as the rest of the day/days unfolded I remember mostly a quiet chill as we tried to go about our lives each making whatever contribution seemed appropriate. once again the situation was surreal and mind numbing but the date for me has lost none of it’s impact. indeed, it’s a small world, as good friends, one living 1 door to the left and the other, 3 doors to the right, lost family that day. a brother was lost at the pentagon, often forgotten in the stories honoring the heroes, alive or dead.

    your piece was well written and provocative. no one would argue the desire for an end to the cycle of violence. the problem seems to be those instances when violence is defined as survival. I obviously have no solutions either.

  3. In 2004 I returned home from London , was just one day after a quite big terrorist attack in Madrid. Waiting for the fly I was smoking in one of the aeroport areas, the police come straight pointing at a guy was next to me, he was arabic something obvious on his clothes in his face. One police stay out of the area pointing at him when the other take him out…wow was scared for him, for me and for everyone.
    there is a better way , Keith , sure about.

  4. “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
    Elie Wiesel

  5. It seems that my call to abandon sides and work together for a better world has proved more contentious than I had expected. Perhaps that is because I may have confused the issue by discussing those individuals “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.”

    In order to state my position more clearly, I would like to add that it is my earnest desire to live in a world that is not divided along sectarian or racial grounds. Ideally, I want to live in a world that is not divided at all; but sadly, that is not likely to come about soon enough for me. In my opinion, the fact that there are differences between us is something to be celebrated. It makes the world a more interesting place. But in terms of an individual’s value to humanity, it matters not one jot which race or creed or cult that individual belongs to. What matters is how that individual treats others.

    So, if taking sides is unavoidable, let me propose this to you. There are just two sides: good and evil. And in my desire to be on the side of good I will stand proudly with my brothers and sisters, regardless of their age, their gender, their race or nationality, regardless of the religion they practise or if they practise no religion, if they are healthy or they are sick, if they are rich or they are poor; in fact, regardless of whatever superficial differences exist between us that those on the side of evil may try to use to drive us apart.

    Of course, if we are true to our history, we will probably splinter into factions and go to war over the definition of good and evil. But I hope not.

  6. Every country, every nation has painful anniversaries. Some events in other parts of the world took place in a systematic way, planned killings over many months, wars, genocides, invasions…This is one among many others.

    I am sorry to disagree about one thing. There are not just two sides {good and evil}. This is by definition a confrontational reasoning. Because all sides are convinenced to be {good}. Even Darth Vador was convienenced he was right !

    In my opinion, there are no sides at all. There is only human nature.

    Thank you for the thought provoking moment.

  7. I do not believe in evil and naming something evil is one step closer towards embodying such ‘evil’ and acting out in the name of good. What we consider evil are often only splintered off parts of the whole we rather disavow then process. The so called evil parts in humans or society have legitimate cause that need a hearing and airing out. So in my process oriented view the challenge is to take on roles (sides) but not to get stuck with one, but stay fluid, and develop the ability to wear different hats, walk in a variety of shoes so to say.

  8. I am sure there is unity at the heart of all. I am sure there is oneness. In our manifest universe, in our world, there appears to be division from that oneness. There appears to be light, dark, good, evil.

    I live in this world, and I try to live aligned with that which is light, that which is good. It is all I can do. Someday I will be whole again. Until then…

  9. A most fitting post in memory of lives lost, and the loss of a free lifestyle that it will take time to regain. After so many years of living in the US, I remain optimistic about the country’s good intentions (though not always properly articulated), their generosity, dynamism and optimism. I grieved with them that day, and for years after. I wish nothing but the best for the country, and for all of us.

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