Illustration by Ellen Weinstein
Alex Galván was in El Salvador teaching English to poor kids when he first learned about his ties to terrorism.
It was last March, during the patch of the calendar most universities cut out for spring break. But instead of beer-bonging his way through a beach week or posting up on the couch, the Florida State University political science and international relations major caught a flight south.
The trip wasn't unusual. Galván is hardwired for giving: The Tampa native helped open a free clinic for the uninsured in Tallahassee and has taught impoverished Moroccans about the importance of clean water. Working young Salvadorans through their ABCs was merely his latest adventure.
Galván touched down outside of the city of Zacatecoluca, located in a rural region still bleeding from years of civil war and poverty. A bout of malaria was already swimming through his bloodstream. Soon enough, armed thugs were asking about the American stranger. Be careful, a family member familiar with the area had counseled before the trip, and don't tell anyone you're Muslim.
But Galván's problems wouldn't come from El Salvador. They would arrive via e-mail just a few days after his arrival, sent by panicked colleagues from the Muslim Student Association at Florida State. The campus newspaper had run an ad claiming the MSA was aligned with terrorists. Galván anxiously waited out the 30 minutes it took for his shoddy Internet connection to spit out a copy.
The ad climbed half the page, its top splashed with bold lettering: "FORMER LEADERS OF THE MUSLIM STUDENT ASSOCIATION (MSA): WHERE ARE THEY NOW?" Below were 10 names, some familiar echoes from the news. Each was followed by lines identifying their terrorist ties, words like "al-Qaeda," "Taliban" and "jihad" shouting from the page.
"I took it almost as a personal threat, because it was citing how all these people were presidents of MSA, and I'm a president of MSA," Galván recalls.
Florida State's Muslims were used to casual bigotry. This was panhandle Florida. Galván regularly endured barked taunts as he made his Friday trek to the mosque dressed in traditional prayer robes. It was part of life in the deep-fried South.
But the ad suggested that his group was a pilot program for the terrorists of tomorrow. It was far from the truth. Normally concerned with sponsoring beach volleyball games and barbecues, the MSA's most political activity was a yearly Fast-a-Thon to raise awareness about hunger. Galván tapped out angry e-mails to the paper and school administrators, looking for a retraction or condemnation.
He was met with silence. The paper wouldn't print his full-length defense, nor could FSU President Eric Barron be bothered to return his calls. "It was really alarming to us that no one at our university was willing to step up," Galván says. "We seemed to be alone on this issue."
The ad did reel in the attention of one group: the FBI. Two years earlier, a mosque near FSU had been torched. A few hours east, in Gainesville, the Rev. Terry Jones had become a news-cycle regular for periodically threatening to burn the Koran. The FBI wanted a sit-down, worried that some backcountry type might see the ad and reach for a gun.
"In the Muslim community, we've seen how far this goes," Galván says. "People don't just kill a Muslim for no reason. They do it because they've developed an image in their head of Muslims as an evil threat to their lives and families."
But while Galván and his friends met with the FBI, a 74-year-old man in Sherman Oaks was most likely gloating over his latest incitement of panic. Over the years, David Horowitz had turned taunting Muslims into a spectator sport. The Florida State ad was just another mark in his win column.
Like many of the '60s generation, David Horowitz changed his political coloring with seasoning.
His career as an antagonist began in Berkeley with the budding New Left movement, which spliced lecture-hall idealism with radical street work. He edited Ramparts magazine, the '60s muckraking venture that printed the first exposés on the CIA's role in Vietnam, allowing him to rub shoulders with revolutionary royalty like writer Noam Chomsky and the Black Panthers.
But Horowitz's feelings for the left would eventually sour. He saw hypocrisy in the liberals who flung indignation at Lyndon Johnson yet trumpeted dictators like Ho Chi Minh. This growing unease came to a head in 1974, when Betty Van Patter's beaten corpse was pulled out of San Francisco Bay. Horowitz believed that Van Patter, who'd kept the books at Ramparts, had been slain by Black Panthers trying to cover up an embezzlement scheme. The killing was never solved.
By the 1980s, Horowitz had switched teams. He founded what would later become the Freedom Center in suburban Los Angeles, producing pamphlets that urged Republicans to take up arms. "The Art of Political War" called for the GOP to adopt an aggressive activist tone that would come to be its trademark. Karl Rove was a fan. The none-too-subtle "Hating Whitey" scorched liberals for unfairly blaming whites for the problems confronted by minorities.
Horowitz had become an early champion of the outraged right, showing a keen ability for spotting minor flares in the culture wars and showering them with the appropriate dose of gasoline. His was a grab bag of evil-liberal targets that would soon make up the hit lists of better-known conservatives like Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck.
The Freedom Center's annual Restoration Weekend, a white-meat gathering of right-wing notables, featured such prominent speakers as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Horowitz became a regular on the lecture circuit and Fox News.
His message was designed to incite. Take his 2006 book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, which sought to out the instructors polluting the nation's youth with un-American bias. His logic wasn't built from the finest mortar; the Boston Globe called it a "one-sided screed" that simply targeted "professors who hold political views different than [Horowitz's] own."