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Originally published Friday, January 14, 2011 at 3:11 PM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

The trolls and bullies must not stifle community engagement

Constructive and engaging public dialogue is the antidote to the nasty rhetoric polluting America, writes Seattle Time editorial page editor Ryan Blethen

Times editorial page editor

If we as a nation learned anything from the shootings in Tucson it is that stirring, meaningful speech is still possible. Yet it can be hard to hear above the roaring sewer that often passes for public dialogue.

President Obama did what is expected of a leader in response to the national tragedy. He honored the victims of the shooting rampage, but gave a rousing speech filled with — dare I say — hope.

Last week also gave us Charles Turner Habermann, who reminded us that angry, threatening language has consequences. Habermann is the Palm Springs, Calif., genius who left a profanity-laced message for Washington's U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott. Nasty language wasn't enough for Habermann. He threatened to kill the Seattle Democrat and his family. Habermann has been arrested, which he made easier for police because he left his name and number with the message.

I'll give Habermann some credit for putting his name behind his tirade. That is more than I can say for many of the commentors on columns, editorials and news stories. There are days I come home from work and need a stiff drink, a shower or both after reading the comments left on newspaper websites, including seattletimes.com.

I questioned whether I should write this column. Are the commentors who hide behind fake names worth my time addressing? The answer is: occasionally.

Like it or not, what they say is part of the dialogue of The Seattle Times Opinion section.

My favorites are the regulars who comment on every column I write. Charlievictor has become so predictable after 531 comments, I don't even have to read what he writes. Without fail he always begins:

"Once again, the ethically challenged, self-dealing helium filled gas bag otherwise known as corporate welfare king Ryan Blethen ... ." Blah, blah, blah ... . On editorials he uses the same language and substitutes my name with "The Seattle Times editorial board."

The Charlievictors are harmless and not effective. The most they do is call me an idiot and claim the only reason I have a job is because my family owns the newspaper. Never heard that one before.

Some days I feel like we provide a service. A place to vent and hopefully prepare angry commentors to face the world a bit deflated.

Then there are commentors, e-mailers and callers who worry me. I thought about some of them when I read the story about McDermott and the threats made against him.

These are the people who call the office late at night when they know I will not be there. The messages are ugly.

I've been threatened more than once. Told I was going to get set straight. Called names I can't repeat. Details just specific enough to make me wonder.

Somebody can't do this job if threats and nasty comments are going to intimidate. I was encouraged to read McDermott's reaction to Habermann. McDermott told The Times' Jim Brunner that the threats or the Tucson shootings wouldn't force him to take a step back.

"This is obviously a very, very tense time in the country," he said. "But I don't think that's a time you pull back."

The congressman is right. Those who operate in the public sphere can't retreat. Now is the time to elbow through the angry rhetoric with constructive engagement.

Ryan Blethen's column appears on editorial pages of The Times. He is a member of the fifth generation of Blethens to run The Times. His e-mail address is: rblethen@seattletimes.com

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