Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

With the families in London on #sept11

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The Stars and Stripes flew at half mast from the roof of the American Embassy.  In the green square below, the families took turns to lay a  single white rose in the Memorial Garden. The motto inscribed there reads  “Grief is the Price we Pay for Love”.  Underneath are the names of the 67 British citizens who died.  It’s a simple, peaceful space, wreathed with wisteria and lilies, roses and rosemary.

As the families gathered, they added their tributes to the flowers already laid there. Some offerings were formal like the spray of white lilies from Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the firms which lost so many staff at the World Trade Center.  Others were more basic but heartfelt – a single rose in a plastic water bottle, sitting on an envelope marked “To the People of America”.

The families sat in rows of white chairs. They shared prayers, poetry, music and memories.  Wreaths were laid by the US Ambassador, the Prime Minister, and Prince Charles – who spoke of the “continuing, awful agony” suffered by those bereaved.

What did it mean for the families?  Rob Halligan, who lost his father Bob Halligan on the 99th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, told me how much quiet time he has spent in this garden over the years.

But he also said this. “After ten years, many of the families want to be able to move forward. They’re not forgetting. They’ll never forget. But they don’t want to be defined by 9/11 for ever.”

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “With the families in London on #sept11

  1. A poignant piece. On this day of all days, less is definitely more. I’ll certainly never forget being in New York just 3 days after the attacks. Downtown walls and railings were plastered with hundreds, thousands of missing posters. They were frantically home made by families still clinging to hope. I saw one man return to the picture of his missing wife. Underneath the photo was a detailled physical description of her. He took a pen from his pocket and crossed out 5 ft 8 and wrote 5 ft 7.

  2. It is interesting to highlight that more British citizens died on 9/11 than did on 7/7. It is not the numbers that are so significant, terrible as they are, but the almost apathetic response from British people towards 9/11. After all many British died that day and the symbolic significance was not just an attack on America, but an attack on our values, our democracies. This apathy is partly due to our Governments low profile strategy towards terrorism and terrorist attacks. A policy of political appeasement that is just hoping the problem will remain at bay and by luck we will avoid, interrupt or stop further attacks.

    I wonder what will happen when an even more catastrophic event than 9/11 occurs not in America, but here in Europe or even Britain, will we be so apathetic then? Appeasement, as we painfully know from history, does not work it just delays the inevitable.

    Having spent this 9/11 in the USA I was struck by the dignity of the remembrance. Indeed I was surprised there was no chest beating over-the-top patriotism that we are led to believe Americans are prone to. There were flags flutterIng at half mast, and you could sense, as you went around, that this was a special day.

    In the evening I was inadvertently caught up in the remembrance at a hotel in South Carolina. Sitting listening to a band playing I noticed that they suddenly stopped. They called on the audience to stand and remember 9/11 by singing the American national anthem. There were no jingoistic outbursts just a group of around 100 people who stood proudly and patriotically to sing their anthem with gusto. I was impressed, I was moved by an overwhelming feeling of respect and yes pride too. This was not my country, these were not my people yet I felt a kindred spirit, and even though I could not sing the anthem I stood in solidarity as a tear fell from my cheek.

    At this point I realised that when you stand together you are confronting the evil of terrorism, that you are showing your disapproval in a specific yet peaceful way. 9/11 is about remembering the dead, but it is also about remembering that we have values and freedoms that we need to defend, to the death if that’s what it takes. Yes I wonder how our apathy would change if we faced an attack greater than 9/11.

  3. Thank you for your comments! Richard, I’ve spent many years living in the US – and it strikes me that it is entirely normal there to be “patriotic”, or to fly the flag, to sound a note that we Brits find culturally difficult to strike. Over here we can be cynical about perceived American jingoism (and yes, there’s a line that sometimes does get crossed between dignified patriotism and a more noisy nationalism), but like you, I found myself surprised and moved by the way Americans come together to respect their “veterans”, mark Memorial Day and the 9/11 anniversaries, and find positive uplift in a sense of national identity.

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