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Homeland Security and the ABCs of Verbal Warnings

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As a high school science teacher, as with all teachers, we are constantly issuing verbal warnings to our students. They go mostly unheeded. With the start of school this week and the teacher-lesson preparation, there are other reasons to issue a verbal warning to a student.

This time around, the news of yet another terrorist threat had teacher's tongues wagging. Michael Chertoff had just announced that there was to be an immediate change in boarding procedures — one had to throw away every toiletry in the ubiquitous carry-on bag or must pack them in checked bags. It was fascinating listening. It was also fascinating to watch the mountains of thrown-away toiletries. I wondered if they were going to be donated to the Red Cross for the next wave of hurricane victims, recycled or trashed.

While bloggers returned from vacation and teachers warned their nearest-and-dearest of danger we soon discovered together that the bombing attempts actually had been defused. But this latest and greatest terrorist threat had a twist: It was thwarted. Foiled just in time for students to begin school this week. I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

But as I listened to teachers passing on the Homeland Security verbal warning under the leadership of Chertoff, I realized that we, as Americans, had become addicted to them. Bush had just warned us a couple of weeks ago that, "Americans are addicted to oil." But I think he got it wrong. Americans are addicted to verbal warnings about terrorist plots happening in other parts of the world.

What's more, the speed of on-ground and around-the-globe transmission, for this alert, must have traveled near the speed of light. Could this possibly be a future science project for one of my physics students? Yes, they could calculate how long it takes for a Homeland Security-issued alert to reach everyone on the planet once it has been made official by CNN or FOX news. Hmm, if I could just get them to watch the news.

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