Idaho seeks a reputation - and a reality - free of hate

 

Nothing irritates us more in Idaho than our reputation as a haven for neo-Nazis. Our tolerance of hate-mongers in the past brought us this sorry legacy.

These days, we can make a case that Idaho has become a place that stands up for human rights. That case was strengthened this summer, when Boise residents dedicated the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.

The blot on Idaho's image started with Richard Butler, a former aeronautics engineer who established the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations. In the 1970s, he moved his headquarters to Hayden Lake in north Idaho, his declared goal the creation of an "Aryan homeland" in the Pacific Northwest. Every summer, he held a festival that attracted racists and religious zealots, from the Ku Klux Klan to skinheads. The gathering made for ugly words and ugly headlines.

His followers killed Denver radio personality Alan Berg, robbed banks and spread fear throughout the West. They may not have been politically powerful, but they created what these days we call "buzz" at a level far beyond their numbers. When television shows like ER and Hollywood movies featured neo-Nazi characters, they always came from Idaho.

Butler and the Aryan Nations are bankrupt now. He lost a costly lawsuit filed by a woman and her son, who were roughed up by his security guards. His compound in Hayden Lake has been leveled and will soon serve as a human-rights center.

Then, this August, Boise dedicated the Anne Frank Memorial in a celebration of tolerance and diversity. The memorial tells the story of the 12-year-old Dutch girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp, but whose diary survived to become a beacon of hope for the world. The memorial along the Boise River greenbelt includes a wall of quotes from both human-rights leaders and unsung people who promote tolerance in the Anne Frank tradition. The New York Times said the memorial places Idaho at the forefront of human-rights education.

Many people helped Idaho make that transformation, but perhaps none more than Bill Wassmuth, who died in Ellensburg, Wash., a week after the Anne Frank Memorial opened.

Wassmuth was one of a group of Coeur d'Alene citizens who were fed up with Butler's slurs and threats of violence. When Butler attracted skinheads and neo-Nazis for his annual meeting in 1986, Wassmuth, then a Catholic priest, went on television to denounce Butler's ideas. Wassmuth was sitting in the living room of the rectory at Pius X Catholic Church on Sept. 15, 1986, when a pipe bomb exploded at the kitchen door.

His attackers had planned to toss the bomb through his living-room window and kill him, one later confessed. Fortunately, they changed their minds, and Wassmuth was shaken up but not injured. He was also not intimidated into silence.

Two weeks later, after three more bombs exploded at Coeur d'Alene businesses, Wassmuth responded by organizing a rally to confirm the community's commitment to human rights. He stood up to Butler, who called him "a closet Jew," and to threats of more violence. Eventually, the bombers were arrested and the terror tactics ended. Though Butler was never legally linked to the attacks, his position weakened.

Wassmuth went on to form the six-state Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, carrying on the fight against racism and intolerance through the 1990s, when militia groups and so-called Christian Identity churches took the mantle of intolerance from Butler.

Wassmuth laid the groundwork that made Pacific Northwesterners look into their own souls. He made political and business leaders uncomfortable, forcing them to declare themselves and join the fight. He showed how the region's wider reputation of intolerance was hurting efforts at economic development.

The transformation didn't always come with a change of heart. But it came, nevertheless.

Wassmuth's health deteriorated in 1999, when he came down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease. After he was diagnosed, Wassmuth, with the aid of a cane, climbed the tower at the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake. Not long after, it was pulled down and demolished.

"Bill was an early voice for human rights and human dignity in our state," said Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "He knew what it was to be a target of hate. Yet he persevered, and because of his efforts, Idaho today is no longer home to groups that espouse hatred and violence."

Idaho and the rest of the West still have a long way to go. But thanks to people like Bill Wassmuth, we've got local heroes to show us the way.

Rocky Barker is an environmental writer with the Idaho Statesman.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • AMAZING PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    If you're an amazing Program or Education Manager looking for an exciting and fulfilling position with an organization that makes a difference in the community,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • SOCIETY FOR WILDERNESS STEWARDSHIP BOARD MEMBER
    Join the SWS board and help us broaden, diversify, and engage the wilderness community.
  • NEW MEXICO BIRDER'S PARADISE.
    Fully furnished 2B/2B home near Bosque del Apache NWR, great for nature lovers.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.