Editor's Letter: Reflections on September 11, 2001: A Full-Circle Perspective, 20 Years Later by Elisa Schmitz

Editor's Letter: Reflections on September 11, 2001: A Full-Circle Perspective, 20 Years Later

The United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the end of America's Longest War, officially ending on August 30, 2021, when the last U.S. troops departed the country. It's no coincidence that this happened just days before the 20-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. that led to the long and tragic war.

The painful events in Afghanistan over the last few weeks have brought back so much of that hurt and grief, just as the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, triggered powerful feelings for many people around the world.

I'm riding a roller coaster of emotions, filled with so much grief and heartache for what once was, and for what could have been. With 9/11 just days away, I'm remembering the overwhelming feelings of that day, and the equally powerful memories on the one-year anniversary. I wrote a newspaper column for each of those events, and some of what follows below is taken from the columns I wrote to mark the one-year and 10-year anniversaries. The feelings resonate with me just as strongly today as when I wrote them so many years ago:

Planes crashing. Buildings falling. People screaming.

Where were you when the first plane hit the first tower? A friend and I were at Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo studios in downtown Chicago, awaiting a show taping. After the planes hit, a very emotional Oprah came out to talk to the audience in her slippers, bathrobe, glasses and hair curlers. She said, “They say the show must go on, but not at Harpo it doesn’t.”

I admired Oprah so much at that moment for canceling the show, offering support to her guests and, most of all, for baring her soul. But all I could think was, “Get me home.” My friend and I joined the excruciatingly slow mass exodus from Chicago. Traffic on the expressway crawled at a snail's pace as everyone fled the city in fear. Finally making it safely back, home never looked so good – and I never held my children so tight.

Photo: Crowd watches South Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan collapsing on September 11, 2001, at 9:59 a.m. (Bigstock)

The images in our minds from September 11 are vivid, and just as frightening, years later. The events embedded a powerful scar upon our psyche; one you don’t think about all the time, but it’s still there. We can hope that it fades over time, but it will never go away. Not even because the man responsible for the destruction and ensuing changes to our lives is now dead. 

Osama bin Laden and September 11 changed many things about our world. Those of us who were too young to feel the impact of Pearl Harbor lost our innocence by realizing that our country is, indeed, vulnerable. We fought back, we became a bit paranoid, and we pulled our children even closer to us.

Many parents felt that their family dynamics changed completely. “I dismiss my worries much faster,” says Shelley, a mother of three. “I can’t imagine anything in my life being that bad. The result is a closer – almost spiritual – bond with my family members.”

Photo: New York City firefighters work near Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City. (Bigstock)

Others realized just how precious the fleeting moments are with our families. “I tend to appreciate the little things more now, instead of counting down the minutes 'til bedtime,” says Elaine, a mother of three.

Perhaps the most important lesson we learned is to live in the moment, to savor each day with our families. “The two things I try to keep in mind every day are that you can’t take your freedom for granted and that life is short, and you should treasure the people you have with you today,” says Jessica, a mother of three.

Adds Shelley, “I realized how fast we have been trying to push our children to grow up and be independent. We are always thinking about the future. In the process, we are missing all the todays. I try to parent my kids for their lives right now.”

Photo: Ground Zero cross. (Bigstock)

As we hold tight to our families, we will always remember those who lost their lives, those who lost loved ones, those who saved countless people with their acts of heroism and those who continue to fight for our country. On every September 11, “I’ll think about those families all day long. I’ll think about the soldiers and Afghanistan. I’ll think about my life. I know I will shed tears,” says Shelley.

“My family will reflect on special times and prepare for new beginnings,” says Jessica. “Every time I look at my baby, I think of all the women who were also pregnant when 9/11 happened. I remember looking down at my belly and wondering how this world would look when my baby arrived. Now I look at my baby, and I still wonder what the future holds for him and for every child. But I also have incredible faith in humanity.”

Now that we are fully out of Afghanistan, I am thinking about those who were left behind. I am thinking about the Americans still there, and the allies who helped us. I am thinking about the women and girls of Afghanistan. I am thinking about all those who made the greatest sacrifice to protect us and our freedoms. On 9/11, and every day, I am so grateful for those courageous souls and pray for them and their families. Your sacrifice was not in vain, and you will not be forgotten. 

Today, and always, you are remembered, respected and appreciated. We are proud, and we are grateful. Thank you, so very much.

Photo: Lower Manhattan Skyline and the Towers of Lights in New York City. (Bigstock)

Here are some comments from the original article:

"Beautiful post, Elisa. I remember that day well and will never forget the experiences and emotions that we shared that day in Harpo studios. One of the things that struck me the most when Oprah came out to speak to the audience was that she was just like every one of us. In that moment, Oprah’s celebrity status and fame were stripped down as we all witnessed such a horrifying tragedy unfold. I certainly grew to appreciate my family so much more and wish there were a way that we could keep our communities and country as united as they were on that day." – Laura Blattner (the friend I was with on September 11, 2001)

"Beautiful, heartfelt post. The years go by so quickly and we all forget how we were all brought together during that time." – Debbie Russell

Photo: Memorial at World Trade Center Ground Zero. The memorial was dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. (Bigstock)

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is the country’s principal institution exploring 9/11, documenting its impact and examining its continuing significance. Honoring those who were killed in the 2001 and 1993 attacks is at the heart of its mission.

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9/11 is still fresh in my mind, and I still grieve for that day and the losses. And now I'm grieving for what's happening in Afghanistan. So much pain in the world. Thanks for writing this.
Elisa Schmitz
I know what you mean, Tribe , thank you. This is a very difficult time. We all need to hold on to each other and stay united as much as we can. Julie Rose , thank you.
My heart hurts that it’s been 20 years already. 🙏🏼

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