The morning coffee drinkers at the Griddle diner remember the guy with “strong ideas.”
To them, he was just some mid-30s loudmouth working in the tire shop down East Lancaster Avenue.
Then, one morning, Wadih el-Hage was on the TV news — charged in the deaths of 213 people in a 1998 terrorist U.S. Embassy bombing, and also accused of securing chemical weapons for fugitive Saudi multimillionaire Osama bin Laden.
The enemies who attack America are not all “over there.”
At the Griddle, they know we have enemies right here.
“He was a radical, radical man,” said retired IRS agent Joe Vale, 71, drinking his coffee black in the old east side diner and remembering the tire guy down the street who was “personal secretary” to bin Laden.
Once, el-Hage was bin Laden’s administrative assistant. Then, he was an Arlington terrorist organizer and a Fort Worth tire repairman.
Now, he faces a life sentence in federal prison.
[Update: El-Hage remains in a Colorado prison serving life without parole.]
“He told people he hated the United States because we were helping Israel,” Vale said. “He told everybody he was an enemy of the United States.
“Who knows how many more like him are still here?”
Bin Laden and his followers are not the only suspects in the terrorist attacks Tuesday in New York and Washington.
The trial of el-Hage — convicted of terrorism in the bin Laden-backed bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya — is our most vivid local reminder that we are part of a larger world.
We live in a community with instant access to that world — and to all its threats.
“We ought to find out who did it, and then go out and get somebody,” muttered Griddle customer Jim Standerfer, 54, a retired plastics worker and Vietnam veteran talking between drags on a cigarette and swigs of diner coffee.
“Really, though — they’ve taken too much money away from the federal intelligence agencies. I’m a lot more worried about what’s happening inside our borders. I’d pay more tax money to have better security around here.”
Some Griddle customers said el-Hage drank coffee there.
Others said they never saw him, but heard about him from workers and customers at the tire shop, which is under new ownership.
“He was always saying that he hates the U.S.,” Standerfer said.
“Fine. I know a lot of people who go around saying they ‘hate’ the U.S. Just don’t blow up innocent people over it.”
Vale, a Rio Grande Valley native and the brother of former San Antonio state Sen. Bob Vale, said he wishes the solution were as easy as finding some other nation to blame and “just go turn the whole place into a parking lot.”
“But it’s not that easy,” he said, waving his coffee mug. “This isn’t some other country we’re up against. It’s just a bunch of thugs against America.”
Melvin Barksdale, 71, was behind the grill. He’s cooked at Griddle diners off and on in Fort Worth since 1947.
“Those guys sat back all day yesterday talking, too,” he said, grinning and waving a hand. “They’ll be there all day today.”
Lonnie Cornish, 63, owner of a pest control service, drifted in for the lunch hour. But he wanted only coffee.
“The government needs to get more a lot more foot soldiers out here, more agents,” he said.
“Whoever’s behind this, they’ve got a whole heckuva lot more terrorists in the U.S. The government ought to be checking more of this stuff out.”
The guys at the Griddle know what they’re talking about.
Some of them know a convicted terrorist.