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Up From Hatred

As National Spokesman for Aryan Nations, Floyd Cochran Was Committed to Hate Until He Realized That, in the Group's Final Solution, His Own Son Would Die. Adrift, Cochran Turned to His Former Enemies for Redemption.

August 10, 1997|Michael D'Antonio | Michael D'Antonio is a free-lance writer based in Miller Place, N.Y. His last article for the magazine was a defense of science

Some experts in hate believe that such bystanders play a critical role in the development of a bigot. "The tacit support of his community is one of the most interesting things this man describes about his past," notes Ervin Staub, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of "The Roots of Evil," a seminal work on racial hatred. In most cases, Staub says, extremism grows when those who could stop it fail to act. The same dynamic holds whether it involves an entire nation or an individual.

"As a child, he was neglected, abused, helpless. Other people controlled him," Staub says. "There was no adult to intervene, to show him a positive response. So when he went looking for someone to emulate, he found Hitler. What is the thing about Hitler that was so unique? His power was expressed in the direct control of other people's lives. It's not an accident that Cochran found Hitler so appealing. And then when he began to mention this, he got a reaction that made people pay attention to him. He was meeting his need to be noticed--to get some kind of status--and identifying with someone who controlled people."

Neo-Nazism also gave young Cochran a stronger sense of identity. "All adolescents ask, 'Who am I? How can I be a worthwhile person in this world?' " Staub says. A movement that promised membership in the master race proved irresistible to an impoverished, isolated, estranged boy. "Often these people can't help themselves," Staub adds. "They have a drive for the status and the attention they get, and they must satisfy it."

"I did like all the attention I got by being a bigot," Cochran agrees. "It made people notice me, and not just for a day or two. It really made an impression. I enjoyed that."

After high school, he married and became a full member of the Klan. He worked when he could--mostly milking cows--but he rarely made more than the minimum wage. Though the marriage produced two sons, it didn't last.

By the mid-1980s, Cochran was divorced, living alone in a trailer and spending much of his meager income on alcohol. He kept up his contacts with the racist network. One of his favorite sources for information was the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. "I'd call up the lady who worked there, Betty Tate, and we'd have these nice conversations. It was always very pleasant, like she was happy to hear my voice. She was like the grandmother I never had."

By 1990, Cochran had no contact at all with his parents, his foster families or his siblings. His wife had remarried and kept his sons away from him. His home was a battered trailer reserved for hired hands on the farm on which he worked. He had no car, few real possessions and no savings. He had little claim to an identity, except for the belief that he belonged to a superior race. By July of that year, it wasn't difficult for him to decide to take the few dollars he had and hitchhike to Idaho for the Aryan Nations Annual Congress. There, tucked beneath 80-foot pines, he found a picturesque little community and a group of people who would accept him just because he believed what they believed about race.

Founded in the 1970s by a racist activist named Richard Butler, the compound is home to both a church--the Church of Jesus Christ Christian--and the political organization called Aryan Nations. The church's theology is built around the belief that today's white Christians are actually what are referred to as the Jews of the Bible. According to this theology, those we call Jews now are the children of Satan, which makes Adolf Hitler something of a saint. And blacks--called "mud people"--are less than human. The politics of Ar- yan Nations begins with the belief that America is the true Israel. According to believers, the nation is being denied its destiny by ZOG, the Zionist Occupied Government in Washington. Variations on these ideas can be found in all sorts of right-wing, anti-government extremist groups from militias to the Ku Klux Klan. Most believers liken themselves to the patriots of the American revolution--men and women fighting an authoritarian regime.

Through Aryan Nations, Butler has tried to unite the Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and rural militia groups and prepare them for a war to create a whites-only homeland in the Pacific Northwest. For the most part, the believers do little more than talk and train themselves to use weapons. In such an atmosphere, otherwise ordinary men can think of themselves as a courageous few, chosen by God to lead a race of befuddled white "sheeple" into the promised land. "It made life seem very exciting," Cochran explains, "and it made you feel pretty darned important.

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