Illustration by Mark Ulriksen
Update, Saturday November 10: Rep. Allen West is refusing to concede to Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, despite appearances that he has lost his reelection bid in Florida's new 18th Congressional District.
The bike is immaculately polished and gleaming in the late afternoon South Florida sun. A bald eagle in full squawk graces the gas tank, white stars checker the front fender, and a tattered red-and-white-stripe motif designed to evoke Old Glory covers the rest of the body. Any hint of grime or dust is purely aesthetic; 22 years in the military teach a man to clean up after his mess. The helmet sits right-side-up on the saddle and is adorned with two rows of jagged teeth and a bright red tongue, like the nose of an old Spitfire; two US Army logos; six bullet-hole decals; and, down at the bottom, the signature of its owner, who has just roared up: retired Lt. Colonel Allen B. West.
It's mid-April and momentarily West, the Republican congressman from Florida's 22nd District—an imaginatively carved Tetris piece stretching from West Palm Beach to the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale—will take the stage at the Palm Beach County Tax Day Tea Party in Wellington. He'll call the tax on tanning salons enshrined in the Affordable Care Act "racist," the president "an abject failure," and, directing his assembled battalion's attention to a small group of placard-bearing liberal protesters, ruminate on his sanity: "They say Allen West is the craziest person that ever set foot on the House floor! Let me tell you who's the craziest person to truly ever set foot on the House floor. That's President Barack Hussein Obama."
For now, though, everyone wants a piece of West and his Honda VTX 1800R retro cruiser. West poses for photos at a short remove, offering a firm grip and flashing an undeniably charming, gap-toothed grin. "A true patriot," gushes a woman in a red tank top, to no one in particular. "A true patriot!"
His vest is black leather like his boots, and it's covered in patches—"Rolling Thunder: First Amendment Demonstration Run, Washington, DC, Inc." across the back, "Christian" on the front. Tucked in the right breast pocket is a copy of the Constitution.
"He's our local rock star!" says a voice in the crowd. She's holding a copy of a book about radical Islam for which West wrote the foreword. The cover features a flaming Islamic crescent and star behind the Statue of Liberty. She grows gravely serious. "Just protect him, God. Protect him, Lord."
Sixty years ago Wellington was pure Everglades, part of an undulating expanse of saw grass and cypress that stretched for hundreds of miles down into Florida Bay. In the years since, the land has been drained, filled in, bought and sold and repossessed. In its place, a fever swamp of an entirely different sort has emerged. Allen West, tea party rock star, is its champion.
Since thumping Democratic Rep. Ron Klein at the polls in 2010, West has taken dead aim at the lily-livered sissies he believes are running America into the ground—and the Islamic extremists he's convinced are poised to seize control. He has suggested that Democratic leaders—whom he calls "chicken men"—"get the hell out of the United States of America"; considers drivers with Obama bumper stickers "a threat to the gene pool"; and says black Democrats are trying to keep his fellow African Americans "on the plantation"—and he's the "modern-day Harriet Tubman" helping them to escape.
I ask West when he first recognized radical Islam as an existential threat. "Uh, let me see, the first time somebody shot at me?" comes the irritated reply.
Of the 94 freshman congressmen who came to Washington in January 2011, none captured the id of the tea party movement—and the ire of the left—as perfectly as West, an Army veteran who retired in 2004 after firing his gun, Jack Bauer-style, past the head of an uncooperative Iraqi detainee. Reborn as a conservative icon, he is the torch carrier for a political culture and a region where, more than anyplace else in the country, radical Islam is the existential threat lurking around every corner.
Activists and aspiring politicians bask in his glow. Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent want him to be vice president; Glenn Beck wants him to be president. Democrats, who have made him one of their top targets in 2012, think the best way to shut him up is to just let him keep talking. Swept into power at the crest of the tea party, his reelection battle this fall will be a measure of just how far those waters have receded.
Let's get this out of the way: Allen West does not regret a single Red-baiting, Obama-hating thing that he's said during his career in political office. "I'm not like the president," he snipes. We're in the lobby of the Palm Beach Synagogue, a pastel-colored building squarely in the middle of an upscale, palm-tree-lined community, where a man's affluence is measured by the height of his hedges.
West, wearing a green camouflage yarmulke and the same leather Rolling Thunder vest, has just held forth in the sanctuary for 45 minutes on debt and taxation and radical Islam, sprinkled, here and there, with token Westisms like "Katie, bar the door!" I was told by his staff we'd have a few minutes to chat after the event, but now he'll have to keep it short because he needs to take a leak.
"My parents raised me very conservatively, and I think that's what you have to understand," he says when I ask about his upbringing. "That's what you have to understand"—it's a phrase West uses a lot, usually followed by a discourse on the Koran (he says every American should read it) or the Progressive Era.
He grew up in a middle-class household in Atlanta, the son of a World War II veteran. His parents, Herman and Elizabeth, were both Democrats, but with a conservative bent. They taught him to read the stock index in the Journal-Constitution and to scorn the thought of a handout. "The Democrat party was once upon a time a very conservative group," he says. West is uncompromising, right down to his grammar. Every sentence is a proxy war in the larger struggle between patriots and the "people in this world that just have to have their butts kicked," and as a consequence he never—never—gives the Democratic Party the dignity of an adjective.
West took the detainee outside, pulled out his 9 mm, instructed Hamoodi to place his head in a barrel full of sand, and fired into the barrel.
"As Ronald Reagan said, 'I didn't leave the Democrat party—the Democrat party left me.' The Democrat party my parents were members of back when I was growing up is not the same one today. They raised me to be exactly what I am today. It's about principles of governance."
Fiercely apolitical during his military years, West didn't even register to vote until after he left the Army. He served in ROTC through high school and stuck with the program in Knoxville, where he received an officer's commission and graduated from the University of Tennessee. By all accounts, it was the Army that shaped his life.
By the time he was assigned to a base 20 miles north of Baghdad in 2003, Lt. Colonel West had command of 650 troops; he was tasked with making inroads with the locals. "There I'd be, an inner-city kid from Atlanta sitting on the floor like Lawrence of Arabia, with 30 Arab sheiks," he later told the New York Times. That August, West received intelligence about a potential plot on his life. A week later, the convoy he was scheduled to be traveling in was ambushed. A few days after that, West arrested an Iraqi policeman, Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi, who he believed had inside knowledge of the plot.
In testimony at an Army hearing that November, West would state that he had watched four of his subordinates beat the detainee, delivering blows to Hamoodi's chest and legs. Finally, he stepped in. West took the detainee outside, pulled out his 9 mm, instructed Hamoodi to place his head in a barrel full of sand, and fired into the barrel. The detainee screamed, called for Allah, and started to talk. But the house Hamoodi suggested searching yielded no leads; he was released 45 days later and was never charged with a crime.
The high-profile case effectively ended West's military career. He avoided a court-martial but was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and was banished to the rear in a noncombat role. West didn't regret a thing: "If it's about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can."
West garnered thousands of letters of support—including from members of Congress. FrontPage Magazine, an online publication founded by David Horowitz to raise awareness of radical Islam, named him its 2003 man of the year for "valuing his own troops' lives over the mental well being and self-esteem of an Iraqi terrorist." A former instructor at West Point was so moved by the case he published a book about it. "If there is a hero walking the planet today, it is Allen West," he wrote.
West returned to Fort Hood, Texas, and then moved with his wife, Angela, a financial planner, and two daughters to Plantation, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale on the edge of the Everglades. His future was uncertain; he got a job, over the protests of at least one faculty member, teaching history and coaching track at a nearby high school in Deerfield Beach. In his free time, West, a certified master diver, planned on being a scuba bum.
But that spring he got the military itch again. He announced he was leaving for Afghanistan, where he'd taken a job with an independent contractor to train the Afghan army and develop its infrastructure. It was there that he began writing for Pamela Geller's blog, Atlas Shrugs, which has been classified as hate speech by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its depiction of Islam. Starting in 2007, he penned a monthly dispatch for the site, "Column From Kandahar." Geller referred to him warmly as "one of my most valued warrior correspondents."
In those columns you can see the future congressman finding his voice. He cites John Stuart Mill and William Tecumseh Sherman ("War is hell") and casts his work overseas in historical terms: America is following in the footsteps of Charles Martel at Tours, and before that the legendary 300 Spartan hoplites at Thermopylae, in defending Western civilization against threats from the East.
"There are those who will hate your own country, America, regardless of the self-evident truths," he wrote in his debut column. "To you I say that life just does not get any better than the 'Land of the all night IHOP'…and if you truly hate America so much, you are also free to find another home. There is surely an illegal immigrant who will be happy in yours." In 2006, Ron Klein, a promising young moderate Democrat, had unseated 13-term GOP incumbent E. Clay Shaw and turned West's backyard into a swing district. With Geller's full-throated encouragement and a growing base of support among the conservative grassroots, West began plotting his first congressional campaign from Central Asia.
Back at the synagogue, I ask West when he first recognized radical Islam as an existential threat. "Uh, let me see, the first time somebody shot at me?" comes the irritated reply. I ask him to elaborate, but his bladder is full and my time is up. "Oh, come on," he says, and walks off.
Fort Lauderdale, December 30, 2008—for South Florida's anti-Muslim activists, this was their Lexington and Concord. It came in the middle of the Israeli conflict in Gaza, and a group of Muslim, pro-Palestinian demonstrators held a protest across the street from a smaller band of Israel supporters. "It was the day that the jihad was uncovered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida," says Tom Trento, founder of the United West, a group dedicated to exposing radical Islam in the United States and Europe. And it was also the day that West, who had just lost his first congressional race against Klein, solidified himself as a hero of the cause. "I don't know if you've seen the video," Trento says.
Trento is referring to the shaky footage he shot. In it, you can hear him muttering periodically that things aren't looking good. After an imam leads the demonstrators in their evening prayers, some of the younger Muslim men cross the street to confront the counterprotesters. Trento was bracing for violence. "And then, out of the shadows, there comes Allen West," he says. West joined forces with a handful of police officers and, like a modern-day Charles Martel, pushed back the Muslim demonstrators.
Trento posted the video and it went viral, eventually garnering a half-million hits and counting. The event resonated so deeply with South Florida's counterjihadists that the next year the participants gathered to commemorate it on the same street corner, like old warriors returning to Normandy. West was a featured speaker. Dressed in a black bomber jacket, collar up, and flanked by Israeli and Marine Corps flags, he let loose. "They came and they charged us," he said. "And for those of you that were there, we withstood. When they thought that we would turn and run away, we said, 'It ain't happenin', that dog don't hunt, take your pro-Hamas butt and get the hell out of my country!'"
I meet Trento, at his request, at the Atlantic Avenue pavilion in Delray Beach, a place with unique significance to South Florida's anti-Shariah movement. Down the street is the pharmacy frequented by 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta in the weeks leading up to the attack. Across the street is the Delray Beach Marriott, where, in 2009, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) succeeded in blocking a scheduled appearance by Geert Wilders on the grounds that the Dutch politician's past statements on Islam constituted hate speech.
Trento hails from Jersey, a pedigree he reinforces by calling me "Timmy" and punctuating his answers with "capisce?" He insisted on videotaping the interview—"My viewers will get a kick out of it!"—and takes evident delight in thrusting a mic in my face, all the while puffing on a big fat cigar.
In 2007, the longtime conservative activist joined with a GOP state representative named Adam Hasner to form the Florida Security Council, the forerunner to the United West. Trento's work now revolves around "gathering intelligence" on the Muslim community, visiting mosques and public events with cameras rolling to find incriminating evidence. (In the Fort Lauderdale video, one protester is heard chanting at the pro-Israel activists, "Go back to the oven!") "Some people are overt; some people are covert," he says of his operatives, but "we get the information we need legally, no guns or bullets."
The lingering aftershocks of 9/11—the city of Wellington paid almost half a million dollars to install a piece of World Trade Center steel in a parking lot—have combined with changing demographics to produce a volatile stew of Islamophobia in South Florida. Long home to a large population of Jews and evangelical Christians with an acute sensitivity to all things Israel, the Sunshine State has received an influx of Muslim immigrants over the past few decades. Activists view the area's smattering of terrorism-related indictments during that time as a harbinger of what's to come. As a result, South Florida has become a launching pad for a half-dozen groups and an array of self-styled experts fixated on beating back the menace of radical Islam and Shariah law in Florida. And West has close ties to most of them.
There's Walid Phares, a leading scholar of "stealth jihad" and a onetime political adviser to a Lebanese Christian paramilitary group, who taught Trento at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton (and currently advises Mitt Romney on foreign policy). Joe Kaufman, a friend of West's who runs the anti-Islam group Americans Against Hate, lives in Broward County; Joyce Kaufman (no relation), a local conservative radio host, campaigned against the grocery chain Publix for including the Islamic New Year in its wall calendar and was—briefly—tapped by West to be his chief of staff. Citizens for National Security, based out of Boca, works to raise awareness of Islamic propaganda in school textbooks, among other places. (In 2011, West invited the group to Capitol Hill, where its leaders announced they had a list of 6,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood currently living in the United States but could not release it due to security concerns.) Reverend O'Neal Dozier, a black pastor who's a GOP fixture, preaches out of a Pompano Beach church where West has spoken from the pulpit; Dozier's claim to fame, at least as far as Islam is concerned, came in 2006, when he protested the construction of an Islamic center by handing out comic strips attacking the Muslim faith. The list goes on.