“… the flames of Saturday night’s cross might be out, but the kind of needless hatred and bigotry they spread apparently isn’t going to be quickly snuffed.”
So ended Spokane Daily Chronicle reporter Bill Morlin’s account – on Oct. 5, 1981 – of his and a freelance photographer’s frustrated attempt to cover an invitation-only cross-burning at the Aryan Nations compound in North Idaho.
How right he was. Over the ensuing two decades, Richard Butler’s racist cancer ravaged the Inland Northwest, tattering the region’s reputation in the eyes of the nation, straining its tolerance for outlandish opinions and, worst of all, terrorizing minority segments of the area’s population.
The uplifting sidelight of this sorry 20-year episode is that it brought forth the decency and courage of the North Idaho community, which assembled a nationally acclaimed human rights response to Butler and his recruited imports. By the turn of the century, the Aryans had gone too far, bringing upon themselves a crippling lawsuit.
Today, Butler is dead. The compound has been bulldozed. The Aryan Nations Church and its Sieg Heiling jackboots are last week’s bad dreams. Good riddance to all.
Still, the embers left on the North Idaho ground more than 28 years ago smolder on.
As Morlin reported in a freelance article published in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review, overt racism is struggling to make a re-emergence in the Inland Northwest. Eleven apparent hate crimes have been reported in the region over the past 14 months, although only a couple resulted in arrests or charges.
Fortunately, the tribulations of the 1980s and ’90s left the area better equipped to deal with the returning threat. For one thing, law enforcement agencies now understand the situation. Civic organizations such as the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations are alert and organized. And the racist elements appear less cohesive than the neo-Nazi network that surrounded Butler.
Harassment and intimidation, whenever and wherever they occur, must not be underestimated. They are tools of domestic terrorism.
Human nature being what it is, we will never fully douse the glowing coals of bigotry. For that reason, even as one threat is removed, a vigilant community must be resolved to detect and repel the next.