Executive editor Mimi Swartz talks about Wadih el-Hage and this month's cover story, "The Traitor Next Door."
texasmonthly.com: When did you first hear about Wadih el-Hage and his Texas connection? What led you to write about him?
Mimi Swartz: I read about him in the New York Times story on the closing arguments of the trial, but the idea for the story came from Paul Burka, our senior executive editor.
texasmonthly.com: In your story you state that Wadih is in solitary confinement. I’m guessing that you never got a chance to speak to him in person. Did this complicate matters for your story? If so, how?
MS: It’s much harder to write about a person when he cannot talk to you. You have to go to his friends and family and press them for descriptions; we were also fortunate that in this case we had some of Mr. el-Hage’s writings as well.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of person do you think Wadih is?
MS: I think he is a deeply religious man, who desperately loves his family but, as his lawyer told me, “wouldn’t see himself as the government saw him.”
texasmonthly.com: In your mind, is Wadih a typical Muslim living in the U.S. or is he an exception?
MS: He’s a very religious Muslim, but there are very, very few Muslims in the U.S. with ties to members of Al Qaeda like his.
texasmonthly.com: How did you go about getting information for this story? What kind of research was involved?
MS: To research this story, I spoke with members of his family, his friends, his attorneys, investigators on the case, members of the Muslim community in Arlington, experts on the Muslim faith, and read the transcript of his trial, all eight thousand pages, along with press accounts of the embassy bombings in east Africa.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story? Why?
MS: The best thing about this story was trying to think about coming to this country from the Middle East twenty years ago. We are all so provincial and narcissistic here, thinking that we have the best way of life on the planet—it was extremely interesting to learn why Wadih el-Hage didn’t assimilate the way a less religious immigrant would.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to this story? Why?
MS: The biggest challenge of the story was to render Wadih el-Hage as a human being. We’ll never understand people with beliefs like his if we continue to reduce them to clichés.
texasmonthly.com: Were you surprised by any of the information you learned while working on this story? If so, could you elaborate?
MS: It was frightening to learn how early bin Laden was planning attacks on Americans, and how terrible our intelligence was. Then too I was reminded, writing this story, how small our world has become—a year ago, very few people in this country probably knew or cared where Peshawar was. Now we all have to know.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think readers will react to this story?
MS: I have no idea how readers will react to this story—I’ll be interested to hear.