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Still searching for meaning 20 years after 9/11 | COMMENTARY

A woman stands by the 9/11 memorial exhibit on the top floor of the World Trade Center in this 2012 photo. The photographs are of Marylanders killed in the 9/11 attacks.
A woman stands by the 9/11 memorial exhibit on the top floor of the World Trade Center in this 2012 photo. The photographs are of Marylanders killed in the 9/11 attacks. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Twenty years after 9/11, and we are still searching for meaning from the events of that morning. Our parents and grandparents had Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack that killed a similar number of thousands and left a nation shocked and humiliated. Pearl Harbor was seared into memory and history. It galvanized a generation to sign up for military service and go across oceans to right the wrong.

Similarly, the horrific acts of 9/11 shocked the nation, unleashing a torrent of anger and sympathy and confusion. Unlike Pearl Harbor, 9/11 has not become a morality play where the forces of good destroy the armies of evil. After 20 years and hundreds of thousands of more lives lost, Afghanistan falls almost on the eve of this anniversary. The war on terror is not over. It is human nature to want endings and final explanations, but 9/11 cannot be reduced to such simplicity.

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Yet, in its complexity and unfinished story, there can be found hope in 9/11 — and even inspiration.

A large group of volunteers started the Maryland Survivors Scholarship Fund 20 years ago. Hundreds of Marylanders were compelled from the heart to contribute to the fund. Of the roughly 70 Marylanders who lost their lives in the three attacks, we found 11 children who would not be eligible for any government or other special college assistance. We have followed these children over the years and stayed in touch with the families.

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For the most part, 9/11 families do not participate in 9/11 commemorations. For these spouses, aging parents, and siblings, Sept. 11 is the worst day of the year, an unavoidable reminder of the pain and great hole left in their lives, a hole that is never filled and a pain that lessens over time but never goes away. For the most part, the families will pass the day quietly in contemplation. While speeches are delivered at all the memorials and the networks run special after special report, one surviving Maryland spouse will do what he has done every year on Sept. 11: He will go to Mass, to the cemetery and then to spend quiet time at home.

These 9/11 families never asked to be martyrs or heroes. In an instant, they had to radically adjust their lives to focus on their children and surviving family. Of the families we know, many of the surviving spouses did not remarry. One of my college classmates raised two wonderful children to adulthood while fighting a losing battle against a degenerative disease. Her husband was never there to fulfill his marriage vow, to share in the child raising and to ease her awkward, slow fight against her failing body. To the surviving families of 9/11, there are no silver linings to the sudden and capricious loss of a spouse or loved one. For the surviving spouse, it became double and triple the hard work of parenting to make life right for the children.

It is in the children that you will find inspiration. Of the Maryland families helped by our fund, we have watched all the teens attend college and grow into healthy and productive adults. Twenty years is a generation. Where once there was a teenage girl whose sad face broke your heart, there is now a wonderful mother of three. Two young women who were only babies when their father died in the towers have, through the hard work and devotion of their mother, grown into extraordinary young women. They will graduate from college soon, determined to change the world through careers in education and disaster relief. Both have expressed how their scholarship money is like a gift across time from their father.

If there is meaning in 9/11, it is not found in revenge or the end of the war on terror. It is found in the remembrance that for a moment in time, we came together as a people in an unmatched outpouring of affection, sympathy and gifts for the families and the victims. No one cared that the victims were poor or rich, young or old, or Black, white, Latino/Latina, Asian, British, German, Mexican, Canadian. For a moment, we were one people united in our support and love for one another.

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There is also meaning in the resilience of children and the heroism of survivors who have persevered and succeeded despite the seemingly unbearable burden that life laid upon them. It is as simple as good triumphing over evil — and for that we should commemorate the lives lost on 9/11. We can be thankful for the memories of the dead and for the courageous examples of the living.

Douglas M. Schmidt, a Towson resident, is chairman of the Maryland Survivors Scholarship Fund, which is providing the last college scholarship awards to children and dependents of Marylanders who died on Sept. 11. His email is doug@chessiecap.com.

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