by Rocky Barker
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, declaring as his 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 Klu 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 became fed up with Butler's slurs and threats of violence. When Butler attracted skinheads and neo-Nazis to 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 reconfirm 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 on 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 perception 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 had local heroes to show us the way.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo., (hcn.org). He is an environmental writer with the Idaho Statesman.