On the West coast, all I could do during the 9/11 attacks was watch TV.
I was in high school, and we started getting the news as the school day started. When I left home to walk to class, the media was still reporting a "small aircraft" had hit one of the towers. I didn't understand the full impact until I made it to school - and we saw the second plane hit during a live broadcast.
No one got anything done that day. Every classroom rolled out a TV so students could keep up with the continuous coverage of the event.
It was picture day, so the school tried to force us to act as if everything was business-as-usual, but I think everyone submitted their own photos that day. No one was smiling.
In line for the cameras, I overheard a few of my friends criticizing the President for his apparent inaction in the aftermath of the attacks.
"If we didn't have a f**ing Boy Scout in the White House, we'd be doing something about this."
I was already angry about the attacks - furious they'd happened and angrier still that there was nothing I could do about it. Hearing my purported friends attack the President, using a label that applied to me - Boy Scout - just piled on.
"No, if we had a Boy Scout for a president, we'd have already nuked those f**king b***ards for what they did."
What Comes Next
September 11th was a hugely unifying event for Americans.
As anger gave way to grief, boundaries between social groups began to disappear. One of the most telling indicators was a political cartoon that alleged to show a before-after comparison. Before was a group of people wearing shirts printed with all of the sub-group labels with which we're so familiar: African-America, Indian-American, Asian-American, etc.
After was the same group of people, but with shirts only reading "American."
It was the kind of cartoon that gave you a warm, pleasant feeling and said, "yes, we can get through this."
As I read the cartoon, I remembered having a discussion about this kind of sub-group labels with my friend L, and I wanted to ask her opinion. This was the first time I'd realized she hadn't been at school since the 11th.
I asked a few other friends, and no one had seen her. I tried calling, but no one answered.
A week or so later, she quietly came back to school, but avoided everyone. When I was finally able to catch up with her, she was almost scared of me, and I couldn't figure out why.
It took a few weeks before she finally explained.
Her family is from the Middle East. While not Muslim, everyone immediately identified her - and her family - as being surrogate targets for their rage against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks. They threatened her life at school, threw bricks through all the windows of her house, beat her father, and called non-stop with death threats.
Whilst September 11th was uniting the rest of "us," it had lumped my friend and her family in with "them" and showed no mercy whatsoever.
My comment during picture day showed her the last friend she had at school was just like the rest of "them" and was someone to be feared.
My friend was legitimately terrified that I both hated her and, like so many had threatened to do already, wanted to kill her.
I was devastated.
Over my lifetime, I've had several labels applied to me by others. Some are accurate and truly reflect who I am.
Many are not, and do more damage to my relations with those who would apply a label to me than they help anyone do anything.
I was labelled a trouble-maker as a youth because of the jacket I chose to wear.[ref]I have been escorted out of stores like Target by security solely because I was wearing a denim jacked and "looked like a deviant."[/ref] I was labelled a non-athlete because I didn't participate in traditional sports and, in high school, only lettered in band. I have been refused jobs because my skin color doesn't represent one some associate with diversity.
Admittedly, some of the labels are more deserved than others. I have been avoided by a friend because of words spoken in anger. I have been avoided by a friend because they saw me with a Bible, but having not heard my opinion on certain issues, assumed I stood with the others in my Bible study.
I've also recognized how I apply arbitrary labels to people. That day in 2001, I labelled all people from the Middle East as the enemy, both with my words to others and with opinions and feelings I kept to myself. When confronted with what I'd done, I was mortified. I'd become the exact kind of person I despised - a bigot. I hated an entire group of people because they shared an ethnicity with someone I'd never met who I also hated.
Realizing my mistake has kept me cautious to apply any labels to any individuals ever again.
I won't label you.