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Alex McRae Columnist

Published Sunday, June 03, 2012

Careful what you write

There is nothing I enjoy more than relaxing at some remote spot where I can calm my nerves, gather my thoughts and enjoy myself. Now I’m looking for a similar place to hide out when the feds come looking for me. It could be soon.

Children were once taught that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.”

These days, words can not only harm you, they can get you thrown off a plane or into jail, accused of being a “threat” to truth, justice and the American Way.

I string together words for a living. Until now I had no idea that using such innocent words as “wave,” “sick,” “vaccine” or the always inflammatory “relief” could send up red flags at our national security services. But, in fact, owners of barbecue joints that post a sign saying “swine” or “pork” may soon be getting a second look from anti-terrorism types in D.C.

A recent news story said the Department of Homeland Security was tracking the use of certain words on websites and social media gathering spots like Facebook. When forced to release the list in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Homeland Security revealed a list of key words and phrases officials felt might indicate a threat to the homeland. In this case, “threat” meaning everything from a volcanic eruption to a flash mob at the mall.

Fine. I understand the need to monitor communications of suspected terrorists and look for words or phrases like “Great Satan,” “jihad” or “underwear bomb.” But maybe the feds have gone overboard. I was stunned to see how lengthy the list of “suspicious” words and phrases was. And how utterly useless.

In case you’re wondering if you’ve posted a word or phrase online that might threaten national security, here’s a sampling of “scary” words, as defined by those charged with protecting us.

“Assassination.” Hopefully, government officials didn’t see the column where I used this word in connection to Col. Sanders and his flock of fowl.

“Cloud.” That’s where some of my computer programs live today. Hope nobody gets the wrong idea about that reference.

“Airport,” “subway,” “port,” “dock” and “bridge” all made the suspicious words list. Homeland Security must not have checked Georgia 400 at rush hour. That’s one of the scariest places on Earth.

After the information was published, agency officials admitted the list was a bit vague.

That’s being generous. When the word “erosion” is being monitored for possible terrorist connections, that’s not vague, that’s nuts.

Thousands of dedicated American men and women work themselves silly around the clock to keep us safe from attacks both here and abroad. The record shows they have done a remarkable job. For that, they deserve our thanks. They sure have mine.

But every system has limits. And this data must still be ultimately analyzed by humans. I don’t want my down-the-street Homeland Security analyst so bogged down checking my columns for terms like “leak” and “delay,” he misses a reference by someone else to a “suitcase nuke.”

Having such a list is probably a good idea. Having a good list would be better.

By the way, “smart” is on the list. “Crazy” is not.

Frankly, the timing couldn’t be worse. It’s time to renew my passport, which means I may be under extra scrutiny. Following a visit to my favorite dentist, I once wrote the suspicious word “drill.” I’d hate to be jailed for talking about my teeth.

(Send your email comments to: alex@newnan.com .)

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