Alex Galvan 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: Galvan 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.
Galvan 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 Galvan's problems wouldn't come from El Salvador. They would arrive via e-mail just a few days in, 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. Galvan 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 MUSLIMS STUDENT ASSOCIATION (MSA): WHERE ARE THEY NOW?" Below were ten 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," Galvan recalls.
Florida State's Muslims were used to low-dose bigotry. This was panhandle Florida. Galvan regularly endured barked taunts as he made his Friday trek to the mosque dressed in traditional prayer robes. It was just part of life in the deep-fried South.
But the ad suggested that his group was a pilot program for the terrorists of tomorrow. Nothing could be further 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. Galvan 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," he 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, Reverend 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," Galvan 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 Galvan and his friends met with the FBI, a 74-year-old man in Sherman Oaks, California, 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 slash in his win column.
The Switch-Hitting Radical
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 spied 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 the 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.