Hate and bigotry often lurk just beneath the surface of civil societies. So long as a society is united in disapproving of hateful words and actions, those evil twins remain suppressed. When they receive official approval, they rise to the surface and infect society like a virus. A society must maintain continued vigilance to keep them in check.
When the Aryan Nations hate group started flexing its muscles north of Hayden, Idaho, in the early 1980s, drawing in white supremacists from across the country, a number of local folks organized to counter it, including Father Bill Wassmuth, attorney Norman Gissel, educator Tony Stewart and leadership of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. They formed the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations to educate the public and counter the malign activities of the hate mongers.
A significant part of the local community took part in that effort, but it was not until the bombing of Father Wassmuth’s home in 1986 that area Republican legislators and the business community across the state woke up to the necessity of lending a laboring hand. The strength of that united front was successful in eradicating the evil or, at the least, driving it underground during the next decade.
Recent years have witnessed the growth of white nationalist sentiment in northern Idaho, due in significant part to the promotion of this beautiful area as part of the American Redoubt, a refuge for the so-called “white race.” Realtors marketed the area as a place where extreme conservatives could live among like-minded souls. That has brought a large influx of people fleeing liberal states on the West Coast and elsewhere to live in a right-wing Christian haven. Donald Trump has provided a wink and a nod of approval to the worst elements in white nationalist groups, supercharging the movement, including the northern part of the Gem State.
In a welcome piece of history-repeats-itself news, a new anti-hate effort was launched in Coeur d’Alene on Nov. 17 to counter the white nationalists. United Against Hate is an initiative of the U.S. Attorney General, presided over in Idaho by our U.S. Attorney, Josh Hurwit. Although the revered Father Bill died in 2002, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and its usual suspects – Stewart, Gissel, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and many locals – joined in the campaign to place a check on the new crop of hate mongers.
As history has shown, this is the kind of action that can open the way to better understanding and at least a semblance of harmony amongst those who must co-exist in this great state. Hurwit said the goal of the meeting was to “connect communities” and create “partnerships to counter hate.” Kootenai County Prosecutor Stanley Mortensen added that he would address hate crime “if and when it does happen.”
This is certainly a promising start for an undertaking to counter the serious problem of hatred and bigotry in Kootenai County and the surrounding area. It will need to be a sustained effort and appears to have the right participants to make that happen. But, as history tells us, it will need more than that to be successful. It will need the buy-in and vocal help from local elected leaders, speaking out against hateful words and actions.
Business leaders from across the state will also have to weigh in, big time, to get the message across that Idaho is too great for hate. Businesses will have to stop merely paying lip service to the problem and speak forcefully with their voices and, more particularly, with significant financial resources to support those who run as human rights advocates and to oppose those who won’t–no more pussyfooting around with those sympathetic to the nationalists and extremists just to get tax cuts and other favorable business legislation. This is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor.
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