There is no urban anonymity in Idaho. Only about 1 million people live in the entire state, an area as big as five or six of those little patches people call states back East. In Idaho, where it's possible to know every active person in one's community, taking a stand against a determined and violent group makes one extremely vulnerable. But there are people here willing to take that risk.
When I travel in the East and people learn I live in Idaho, there are always two things they know about my state: potatoes and Nazis.A lot of people seem to know that the Aryan Nations group, headed by Richard Butler, owns property at Hayden Lake, near Coeur d'Alene. Fewer realize that this cell or coven - or whatever - was founded in California and moved to Idaho in 1973. It forced itself in, much the same way the commune of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh invaded central Oregon, and it was just about as welcome.
People in Idaho resisted, and resisted effectively, the encroachment of white supremacist organizations. That's newsworthy because 98.1 percent of northern Idaho is white and its population is not personally threatened by white supremacist doctrines. Idahoans fought back in two ways: peaceful counterdemonstration and diligent law enforcement.
We have to allow even Nazis to exercise their right to free speech, but we don't have to allow their views to go unchallenged. When the Aryan Nations held a convention in northern Idaho in 1985, a human rights rally was organized nearby. The racists mustered fewer than 200 participants from all over the United States; the human rights rally drew more than 1,000 - a considerable crowd in Kootenai County.
When another neo-Nazi organization in Pocatello used public access television to air racist films, a committee put together panel discussions to be aired immediately after. While about 30 racists stood around a burning cross on a farm in southern Idaho, two counterdemonstrations took place in nearby Twin Falls.
Then the Aryan Nations group moved beyond propaganda to criminal acts that made it possible for legal steps to be taken against its members. We can't arrest them for bigotry, but for counterfeiting, harassment, robbery and bombings? Oh yes, we can.
When the Hayden Lake gang moved into criminal deeds - which they seemed driven to do - local officers, prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were ready. The gang numbered only about 65 at its peak, and 30 members or close associates have been arrested in recent years. I think it's a safe bet that there are now more Nazis to be found in New York City than in northern Idaho.
No one here underestimates the danger of publicly opposing the neo-Nazi movement. Bombings in Coeur d'Alene in 1986 narrowly missed killing a number of people, and some human rights activists and county prosecutors have survived assassination attempts. Right now, I'd be afraid myself, except that I know those Hayden Lake-types are too ignorant to read and follow a logical argument.
The wide-open spaces of the West have inspired many sectarian Utopias. It's a place where libertarians, survivalists, home-schoolers and other oddballs are permitted to live as they see fit.
But even Western courtesy can be pushed too far. It's a mistake to think that Idaho offers hospitality to racist revolutionaries. We will bring the full force of the law against criminal activities and the full force of non-violent protest against unpalatable opinions.
If you're a member of another extremist group contemplating a move to Idaho, please reconsider. Tolerant we are. Timorous we are not.