The shooting of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords prompted a welcome call on Meet the Press, by Congress members from both sides of the isle, including Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, for a restoration of civility in our political debates.
This will not be an easy task. The demonization of political opponents has turned into a cottage industry of hate that benefits many from both right and left.
And the emotions of regular people have been raised to a frenzy by the politics of fear from all sides of the debate. But Idaho can offer a model for taking on the worst elements.
No matter what the motivation of the shooter, who killed six and wounded Giffords and more than a dozen others, the incident has prompted a national discussion that is long overdue.
There was a time not long ago when Idaho was viewed as the center of the right-wing hate movement in the United States. But even as our politics has become more conservative, we have excised the hate-mongers and our image as a refuge for neo-Nazis.
We had become a base for these people because of our tolerance and our basic “leave-us-alone” attitude. But when we as a state realized where it had taken us, we shifted gears led by leaders like Phil Batt and Bill Wassmuth.
Richard Butler, a former aeronautics engineer who established the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations, moved his headquarters to Hayden Lake in north Idaho in the early 80s. He declared his goal as the creation of an "Aryan homeland" in the Pacific Northwest.
Every summer he held a festival that attracted racists and religious zealots from the Ku Klux Klan to skinheads. The gathering made for ugly words and ugly headlines.
His followers killed Denver radio personality Alan Berg, robbed banks and spread fear throughout the West.
They were not politically powerful, but they reached into the national psyche so well that when TV or movies featured neo-Nazi character they always were from Idaho. Butler is dead now but his followers are still around but they are dispursed.
Butler was defeated by a lot of people but it was Bill Wassmuth, leader of a group of Coeur d'Alene, citizens who became fed up with Butler's slurs and threats of violence, who first said enough. He helped Idaho find its freedom from hate.
Wassmuth went on television to denounce Butler in 1986. The Catholic priest was sitting in his living room when a pipe bomb exploded at the kitchen door.
His attackers had planned to toss the bomb through his living room window and kill him, one later confessed. Fortunately, they changed their minds, and Wassmuth was shaken up but not injured. He was also not intimidated into silence.
Two weeks later, after three more bombs exploded at Coeur d'Alene businesses, Wassmuth responded by organizing a rally to reconfirm the community's commitment to human rights. He stood up to Butler, who called him "a closet Jew," and to threats of more violence.
Eventually, the bombers were arrested and the terror tactics ended. Though Butler was never legally linked to the attacks, his voice was weakened.
Wassmuth went on to form the six-state Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which stretched into Colorado, carrying on the fight against racism and intolerance through the 1990s, when militia groups and so-called Christian-identity churches took the mantle of intolerance from Butler.
Wassmuth laid the groundwork that made Westerners look into their own souls. He made political and business leaders uncomfortable, forcing them to declare themselves and join the fight.
He showed how the region's wider perception of intolerance was hurting efforts at economic development. When Phil Batt was elected governor in 1994, he took up the cause to clear the taint of hate from Idaho’s image.
He put the state government behind the effort in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and drew a line for the state’s tolerance between those who would sell hate and the rest of us. Batt's courage along with his clear sense of what was right made others follow his example.
Wassmuth died in 2002 just before Boise dedicated the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. But his movement lives on.
His story and Idaho’s story should give us hope that if leaders like the Congress members on the Meet the Press step up, we can bring people to look into their hearts to respect all of our fellow human beings while speaking out on what we hold dear.
But it will take leadership and courage.