Almost every angle of last Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson has been parsed to the minutest degree. However, I have heard almost no commentary on Sheriff Clarence Dupnik’s use of the word “Mecca” when he described Arizona as “the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” I happen to agree with most of the sheriff’s remarks at that press conference, so I am mostly observing that, when speaking extemporaneously about the the recent tragedy, he — perhaps more unconsciously than consciously — used the word “Mecca” instead of one of the many other synonyms he could have chosen to make his point.
He could have called Arizona the “center” of prejudice or the “capital” of bigotry. Instead, he used the word Mecca, which of course, is a transliteration into English of the Arabic word Mecca (sometimes seen as “Makkah”), a large city in Saudia Arabia and the holiest city in Islam. Our lower-case English word “mecca” has come to be synonymous with “capital” or “center” because of Mecca’s role as a pilgrimage site.
Thus, ironically, in the process of castigating Arizona as a center of prejudice and bigotry, Sheriff Dupnik’s — I suspect unconscious — choice of the word “mecca” was another small step in entrenching anti-Islamic prejudice and bigotry in our country.
Similarly, my suspicion is that Sarah Palin was not consciously aware of the anti-Jewish connotations in her recent use of the term “blood libel,” although, as of yet, I also have not heard of her retracting or qualifying her unfortunate and offensive word choice.
As for how we should proceed in order to become a more united and civil society, I can only echo President Obama’s eloquent remarks at Wednesday’s memorial service:
if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.
In closing, I will offer another connection I haven’t heard made in the media that perhaps lends insight to the state of affairs in Arizona that led Dupnik to speak so frankly about the vitriolic culture of “prejudice and bigotry.” If you have seen the film Borat, do you remember the scene in a country-western bar in which Borat leads the audience in a sing-along of “In My Country There Is Problem”? If not, perhaps you’ll remember the most famous line from the song: “Throw the Jew Down the Well!” Sacha Baron Cohen (who is Jewish) exposes how easily uncivil discourse can arouse a crowd and reveal the prejudices that lurk below the surface of a presumably civil society.
And of all the country-western bars in the United States that Sacha Baron Cohen could have chosen in which to perform his satirical routine, the country-western bar he chose and that that you see pictured in that infamous scene in Borat — and as you will hear announced from the stage at the beginning of the scene — is located in none other than Tucson, Arizona.
(Click here to listen to the song on You Tube.)