When I was taking over as Idaho’s Attorney General in January of 1983, the Aryan Nations group was on the rise in northern Idaho. The Aryans were attracting dangerous white nationalists to their Hayden Lake compound from around the nation. A number of them were ex-convicts. The situation was becoming explosive.
Marilyn Shuler, a real champion of human rights, asked for my help in getting malicious harassment legislation through the Idaho Legislature to counter the hate mongers. NRA objections had stalled the bill. We were able to work out a good bill that is still on the books. Thanks to Marilyn’s encouragement, I became committed to the human rights campaign against the nationalist bigots.
My major concern was not so much that the leaders themselves would commit overt criminal acts but that their overheated rhetoric would spark criminal acts by impressionable followers. I could picture the nationalists sitting around a campfire, raging about minority Americans and boasting of the violent actions they would like to take against those people. Such talk could well provide the spark needed for a weak-minded wingnut to commit a horrendous act.
That may well be what caused three of the Aryans to plant four pipe bombs around the City of Coeur d’Alene the evening of September 16, 1986, including one that blew up at the residence of Father Bill Wassmuth, an Idaho human rights legend. The three would-be murderers were convicted for the bombing spree and their dastardly act helped in no small part to expose the danger of that nationalist group and lead to its demise.
Now, we see an impressionable Floridian, apparently fueled by inflammatory nationalist rhetoric, following the same path to pipe-bomb villainy. More tragically, we have witnessed the horrific slaughter of our fellow Americans at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh by a hate-filled anti-Semite.
Nobody would contend that Cesar Sayoc, the suspect who is alleged to have sent package bombs to at least 14 targets of the President’s ire, was directed by anyone to do so. Nor that Robert Bowers was told by anyone to murder our Jewish brothers and sisters at their place of worship. He appears to have been motivated in part by animus toward the outstanding refugee settlement program operated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Just before his heinous act Sayoc raged, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” He appears to actually have swallowed incendiary claims that Americans were under attack by murderous invaders.
Words do matter—they can spark horrible acts by some who are marginalized on the fringes of society, particularly if those words are shouted by a person of great power and authority. Just like the Aryan bombers, weak-minded people without a strong moral compass can hear a call to do horrific things in the heated words of forceful leaders.
The Aryan nationalists wore out their welcome in Idaho after people of good faith from around the State stood up to their hateful, racist message. It took a lot of hard work by citizens from across the political spectrum. Those in leadership positions stood up and let both the Aryans and the general citizenry know that hateful words and actions were not acceptable in our good State.
It is time for those in positions of governmental and moral leadership in our nation to step up and proclaim that divisive, nationalist and racist words are not in keeping with America’s basic values. We are the “United” States, not the divided states. We were tested mightily during the Civil War and those who stood for division and racial injustice lost the fight.
We have become a strong and respected nation by working together, but we will not endure unless we respect and protect one another. As Abraham Lincoln, one of our nation’s greatest political and moral leaders, said (obviously harkening to Mark 3:25), “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”