The true cost of terrorism

I learned knowing the enemy makes sense of the world. So, on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, I walked into a coffee shop and created one. Over the years, I had been in this coffee shop on many mornings but up until that morning I had never before noticed the enemy. Up until now, he was just a guy. We would speak, mostly in trivialities. He would grunt, “Good morning.” I would grunt back to him, “Good morning.” He wouldn’t ask me how I wanted my coffee. He knew. I wouldn’t ask of the price. I knew. He would grunt, “Have a nice day.” I would just grunt then head for work. This is the height of gentility and civility between two grumpy old men.

On this particular morning I experienced something I will never forget. I, like most Americans on Sept. 12, 2001, found myself in unknown territory. Fear, rage and mourning … churning within me … changing me. Less than 24 hours prior, 19 men, most from Saudi Arabia, had killed 2,996 human beings.

In the coffee shop, the man behind the counter, dark eyes, dark hair, olive skin, an intense accent, watched me carefully. He was wide eyed and trembling. I believe he was literally witnessing the change transpiring within me. My teeth clenched, fist balled white and hard, veins erupting in my forehead, every fiber of my being was ready to mercilessly punish this man … this innocent man.

Even though this moment could be measured in mere seconds, it seemed an insane eternity. I had to walk myself through it, reason, search my heart for principles to fall back on in order to calm the storm of adrenaline and hate roiling through my veins. The guy stood behind the counter, holding my coffee, studying me, trembling, until he saw my breathing slow, the veins in my forehead relax. I apologized. He handed me my coffee and told me it was on him.

The man wasn’t a terrorist, He wasn’t a Saudi. He wasn’t even an Arab or Muslim. He was from northern India, the Punjab, he wore a turban and a metal bracelet in the tradition of the Sikh … a religion known for social consciousness, charity and peacefulness backed by courage.

The following morning I went back to that coffee shop. The guy behind the counter, the Sikh, was wary but he smiled when I smiled. He wasn’t wearing a turban. He wore a baseball cap embroidered with an angry looking eagle, wings spread in flight, talons stretched and the words, “God bless America” blazoned across the front.

I was not happy to see him in this hat. Besides being somewhat gaudy, I knew the hat was not a symbol of patriotism but an obvious act of self-preservation motivated by fear, proving nineteen morally broken men could succeed in taking down a part of America. The casualties they caused reached beyond the lives they took, beyond the families they crushed, beyond the buildings they fell or the billions of dollars they cost, they, if only for a moment, made me hate.. And my hate, for many moments more, made another fear, casualties upon casualties.

I would give anything to not have seen the Sikh wearing a cap with the words “God bless America” across the front. Not that I have anything against such hats. But the greatest blessing God could bestow upon America is to make it a place where one may thrive within one’s own identity. The turban was a part of this man’s identity, a symbol of his deepest beliefs, and my fear and hate, if only for a time, stole these things from him.

The guy in the coffee shop and I spoke for a bit. I apologized again, which is a weird sort of thing … apologizing not for an overt act or a spoken word … but for an emotion.

This is what terrorism intends, committing acts of fear and hate which like a virus spawns more fear and hate.

There is this Frenchman. His name is Antoine Leiris. In 2015 he lost his wife, Hélène, to an inhuman act of terrorism. I admire this man. Immediately after the attack, Leiris wrote an open letter to those who would kill someone like his wife. He wrote, “I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If this God for whom you kill blindly made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife is a wound in his heart … So no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. You want it, but to respond to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.”

It took about a week but the guy who owned the coffee shop started wearing his turban again. And somehow, this made him more American … the courage of identity and individuality.

I learned that knowing the enemy does indeed make sense of the world. But the enemy is not the guy in the turban or the women in the hijab, the person with the accent or the colorful skin. The enemy is what I allow to infect my heart. And now that I know this … the world makes sense. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at