I can count only two times I've ever been embarrassed to be Southern or Tennessean.
The first was when I was a child and George Wallace was grandstanding on television with a crowd of toothless and drawling supporters around him. I thought: Oh, no, now the whole country will think none of us have teeth.
The second was when I read the newspaper Wednesday morning and learned that U.S. Attorney Bill Killian was jeered by a roomful of people who have forgotten that their ancestors once were immigrants here looking for freedom to exercise their own religion -- one that wasn't so welcome in England or Germany or Ireland or any number of the many countries our great- and great-great- and great-great-great- grandparents came from.
Times Free Press reporter Ben Benton watched the circus Tuesday evening and said some 350 people were in the room and many were shouting things at Killian, the man who defends their rights to live safely all over East Tennessee day in and day out.
They called him "traitor" and "serpent" because he dared to try to bring understanding -- an understanding that propagating hate is no different from bullying in schools. An understanding that they can say they don't like Muslims, but they can't threaten one, or vandalize their church, or burn their church down -- as happened some years ago.
Benton said another 80 people were in the lobby listening on loudspeakers, and still another 200 or more were outside carrying protest signs.
Of course, Killian wasn't their primary target -- no pun intended -- from the mob now labeled "teabillies."
What really has these folks whipped up is a community of Muslims who have built the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
This traditionally white, conservative and Christian community has seen a significant influx of immigrants in recent years as the foreign-born population around Nashville has jumped from 58,539 to 107,184 -- an 83.1 percent rise. It is the fourth-largest percentage increase in the United States from 2000 to 2008, according to a study by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
The Muslim increase was fueled largely by the arrival of refugees from Somalia and Kurds from Iraq, who were resettled there by the federal government upon fleeing the repression of Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War.
So Middle Tennessee now has the largest population of Iraqi Kurds in the United States, according to the Washington Post. A significant number of foreign-born Muslims have also moved to the area to study at Vanderbilt University or Middle Tennessee State University.
With the 2001 terrorist attacks, Middle Tennesseans became fearful. Never mind that the only violence in Middle Tennessee were racial slurs painted by Tennesseans onto mosque walls. One mosque was burned down.
Fast-forward a few years past the meteoric rise in rural Middle Tennessee of the tea party, which doesn't care for anything that isn't free, isn't white and doesn't complain. Add in the Boston Marathon bombings and the holier-than-thou religious right that believes only Christians are God's children.
The sum of all those things is embarrassing bullying and ignorant hatred.
Yes, ignorant hatred.
Coffee County Commissioner Barry West stirred the pot a few days earlier by posting a photo on his Facebook page showing a man with a squinted eye aiming a shotgun, under the phrase, "How to wink at a Muslim."
This is a leader, who like many of our congressmen of late, is busier spreading bigotry and dissension than real leadership.
West has since apologized, but the crowd jeering Bill Killian -- who was just trying to bring understanding -- sported signs saying things such as "In America, you are free to practice your religion, and I am free to insult it."
That's wonderfully true. But the key is knowing where insulting stops and threatening begins. The key is thinking -- not just blustering. The key is looking for peace, not just spreading discontent.
When I went to Sunday school in a little, white, back-country Southern Baptist church, we sang a song: "Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in His sight. ..."
So today, I want each of the nearly 600 people who showed up in Manchester, Tenn., Tuesday night to turn off Fox News and turn off the reality shows that you think you should emulate and just ask yourselves one question.
It's a question that you folks probably hear at least once a week from your own Sunday school teacher.
What would Jesus do?
Or do you think He's a traitor, too?
- Pam Sohn