Where have all the ribbons gone? | How Americans remember those who died during 9/11


Thirteen years is long enough for memory to grow stale.

But it can’t erase video footage.

For twelve years, I have remembered 9/11 by reliving it. I planted dozens of flags with the College Republicans on campus until my thumbs blistered, I viewed dramatizations with my family, I held the steel beam of the World Trade Center inside the 9/11 memorial pointing to NORAD at UCCS, I wrote poetry capturing my skipped heartbeat at the first reports.

Everyone grieves differently. National grieving and memorials are complicated. But where is the dividing line between remembrance of lives lost and repeated infliction of a past horror? When do we let go of pain?

“Never Forget: 9/11/2001” is a well-meant slogan, but is also quite nebulous. How are we to never forget? And what are healthy ways to grieve and remember?

Technology now enables humans to re-experience a traumatic event in precisely the same way that they first lived it. Most Americans experienced 9/11 via televised broadcasts on a major news network. So replaying the footage each year allows us to relive the trauma – literally.

This year, I avoided the newscasts, remembering in my heart alone. But at dinner in the campus pub with my best friend, one glance at the television screen regurgitated all my preteen shock at the first plane hitting the tower. I wasn’t sure if I was about to sob or vomit.

Where have all the flowers gone? I think they took our old quieter traditions of remembrance with them. Yellow ribbons, photographs, gold stars on WW2 deployment flags, toy cars left at children’s tombstones.

Empathy for others’ pain is essential, and while modern society may seem calloused, less obvious ways of commemorating loss should not be discounted. True memorials are built in the heart. As J.K Rowling is so often quoted, “the ones that love us never really leave us.”

If I die in a terrorist attack, or natural disaster, or even in a car accident tomorrow, I don’t want to be remembered for how I died. I want my life to be remembered – the beautiful and crazy quarter century I had. If my last moments are painful, I don’t want my loved ones to obsess over them. I want them to “remember when we’d / stay up late and we’d talk all night / in a dark room lit by the TV light” (Skillet). All those little breaths strung together that constitute being alive.

We do the 2,977 people who died on 9/11 a disservice when we generalize them as “the fallen” or “the victims.”

Each one had lives and families diverse enough to make a synesthete’s head swim in sound and color.


Perhaps Christians often view remembering Jesus with communion almost the same way.

We think about the torture in the last 12 hours of a 33 year life, as my friend Cynthia Jeub recently wrote.

I only realized this similarity recently when listening to a song in an Easter play from my childhood.

During the last supper scene, Jesus sings:

“The time is near that I must leave you.
It hurts me so that we must part.
But just as we have remembered,
Remember our moments together

In all you do,
In all you say,
Remember me,
Remember me.

Remember how amazed you were
the day I turned the water into wine?
You had not known me very long,
yet you believed I was sent from God.
Those were such good times,
Those were such good times.
Remember, remember.

Remember how we laughed so long
the day that 10 lepers were healed?
They were so happy to behold.
But only one had returned to thank you
Those were such good times,
Those were such good times.

Although wine and bread representing body and blood are mentioned in some of the closing verses, the song emphasizes the life, not the death. If I actually love Jesus, wouldn’t I want all of his life? Not just the end? And if I want to honor the 2,997, wouldn’t I listen to how their family members and friends remember them?

Next year, I think I’ll read some biographical sketches of people who died on 9/11, google some photographs. And skip the video replays.

One thought on “Where have all the ribbons gone? | How Americans remember those who died during 9/11

  1. I think the best way to remember the victims of 9/11 is to honor and remember their lives, not the tragedy in which they died. I think you have illustrated an excellent point, one that needs to be mentioned in the media more rather than continually re-living the tragic events of 9/11.

    Liked by 1 person

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