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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.