For more than 20 years, a ragtag band of ex-Ku Klux Klansmen, skinheads, and other assorted white supremacists in northern Idaho has bedeviled law-enforcement agencies and human rights groups around the country.
Operating out of what looks like a run-down summer camp and known as the Aryan Nations, this shadowy group preaching its apocalyptic "Christian Identity" philosophy of hate has been tied to a series of violent attacks against minorities and government facilities.
Now, civil rights lawyers are trying to put the Aryan Nations and Richard Butler, the group's elderly leader, out of business.
In a civil trial that begins Monday, lawyers will seek large punitive damages against Mr. Butler and his organization for their part in a 1998 roadside attack on Victoria Keenan and her son Jason by three Aryan Nations security men. (Two of the attackers have been convicted and are in prison; the third is a fugitive.)
Human rights advocates see this trial as a crucial tool in the fight against hate crimes and the rapid spread of hateful philosophies.
"I think this will be a landmark case," says Floyd Cochran, a former member of the Aryan Nations. "This will send a powerful message to white-supremacist groups all across the country that it's one thing to have hateful ideas, but it's another if you act upon those ideas - that the individual and the organization will be held responsible."
"Also, the trial is bringing about a greater awareness for mainstream Americans that hate groups do exist, that they do go out and attack people," says Mr. Cochran, who left the Aryan Nations compound eight years ago and now tours the country speaking against hate groups. Cochran is scheduled to testify at the trial, which is being held in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is representing the Keenans in the case, has a good track record of hitting hate groups in the pocketbook. It's forced the shutdown of some elements of the Klan, and it won a $12.5 million judgment against Tom Metzger (head of the White Aryan Resistance, or "WAR") for his part in the 1990 killing of an
Ethiopian immigrant in Portland, Ore., by skinheads.
Two years ago, a jury in South Carolina ordered the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to pay $37.8 million for conspiring to burn down the Macedonia Baptist Church. Assets of the Klan group and its leaders were seized to help rebuild the black church. The SPLC, which brought that suit, hopes to do the same thing to the Aryan Nations in Idaho.
"I'd like to think it won't be long before [the Keenan] family will own the national headquarters of the Aryan Nations," Morris Dees, founder and lead attorney for the SPLC, said in nearby Spokane, Wash., earlier this year.
Pastor Butler, as he's called, says the trial is based on "trumped up charges brought solely for the purpose of bankrupting a small Christian organization." Butler says Mr. Dees is part of a "Marxist, anti-Christ, antiwhite Jewish cabal."
The Aryan Nations and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian that Butler heads from a wooded compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, may be small in numbers.
But the Christian Identity theology it espouses - that all but the white race "are literal children of Satan" and that "the Jew is like a destroying virus that attacks our racial body to destroy our Aryan culture and the purity of our Race"- has had an impact over the years.
The leaders of violent groups such as The Order, Posse Comitatus, and CSA (Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord), have been affiliated with the Aryan Nations and Christian Identity. Randy Weaver, who was involved in the 1992 shootout with FBI at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, had connections to the Aryan Nations. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh reportedly was inspired by the notion of a race war as prophesied by Christian Identity.
More recently, the man charged in the shooting of five people at a Jewish community center and the killing of a Filipino-
American postal worker in Los Angeles last year had been an Aryan Nations security guard in Idaho.
In the five years since the Oklahoma City bombing, there has been a decline in the number and activity of militia-type groups, the most radical of which were prone to violence as well as racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
"The so-called Patriot movement is a shadow of its former self," says Joe Roy, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project. "But the radical right is not going away. Instead, right-wing extremists are increasingly joining race-based hate groups or taking up lone-wolf type terrorist activity."
Hate group supporters - including such "white power" rock bands as "Blue Eyed Devils," "Aggressive Force," and "Bully Boys" - are rallying to Butler's defense. And although the Aryan Nations' leader has been convicted on lesser offenses in the past, he has successfully fought prosecution on serious charges such as plotting the overthrow of the US government.
Officials in Coeur d'Alene say the trial will be marked by unusually high security.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society