They’re rare, but instances like these do make you wonder

It’s an expression we’ve all heard. Perhaps all used. It always trails off like that, because we seem to think there’s something more to be said, but just don’t quite know what it is.

The writer understood and said he will continue to contribute letters when the spirit moves him, that he always strives and always will strive to focus on issues and not on personalities.

We appreciate that. But I can’t get over the discomfort of thinking that in the Chicago suburbs of America 230 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, half a century to the day after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., people still can be made nervous after writing a simple letter to the editor of their local newspaper.

Thankfully, this writer’s experience is extremely rare. But it’s not unique. Sitting in a file on my desk about two feet from me as I write this are two manila envelopes I’ve been hanging onto, wondering what to do with. One was brought into our offices by a letter writer a few months ago. It’s seven pages of typed, racist, anti-social diatribe — with no signature or return address to identify the sender. The person who brought it to me said he was not intimidated and would continue to write. There is no overt threat in the communication, but still, he thought someone should know. A couple of months later, a reporter brought to me the second manila envelope. It had been given to him by a well-known local citizen who had received it in the mail. It was six pages of typed, mostly racist, anti-media invective, again unsigned and obviously from the same person who had communicated with our letter writer. It too was not overtly threatening, merely insulting and naturally unnerving for the recipient.

This week, I moderated an extremely interesting and informative debate between opponents and proponents of a proposed law that would prohibit children from playing tackle football until they are 12 years old. At the outset, as in most such situations, we asked people to remember that the purpose of the debate was to provide engaging ideas and information and urged them not to make overt public displays or disruptive outbursts. Of the 200 or so people in the audience, 199 were interested, attentive and respectful throughout the 90-minute event. But early on, one person couldn’t help himself from interrupting a speaker with comments that had nothing to do with what the speaker was saying and that were far from original. That person was politely removed, and the program continued productively almost as though the incident had not occurred. But I couldn’t help wondering then, as I wonder now following my phone conversation, what it is about some people. Nationally recognized experts had been flown in by both sides to share years of scientific research and uniquely qualified insights into the nature of the issue. And yet this one individual thought his rude and unimaginative observations were so compelling that they just had to be blurted out in the midst of a public forum.

It’s not quite the same, I guess, as people who send anonymous missives or make abusive phone calls to people whose opinions they don’t like. But they’re both similarly bothersome. The important thing to remember, of course, is that these are not all people. Indeed, they’re not even most people. Barely a fraction of a fraction of people.

But still, some people …

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is deputy managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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