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Waltham terrorist threat or bad chemistry?

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  March 4, 2013 10:02 AM

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Chip Berlet, an ACLU member and vice-president of the Defending Dissent Foundation, wrote this guest blog. He has written about civil liberties and civil rights for over 40 years, and is an Eagle Scout.

The hapless school security guard Jesse Holland at Waltham High School was wrong if he stole powdered iron, powdered aluminum and a magnesium metal ribbon from the school laboratory. The media hoopla about a potential terrorist threat and possession of bomb-making materials, however, was ridiculous. There are real terrorists, and we need to take such threats seriously.

So round up the Scoutmasters! Boy Scout leaders in the United States and Canada have been using iron and aluminum powder to stage sparkling effects at campfires for over 50 years. How do I know? Because I was taught how to do this at a Boy Scout camp in the 1960s.

Holland was arrested recently, telling police he wanted to toss the chemicals into a fire to see what happened. That's how I was taught to make showers of sparks at campfires. I learned to adjust the amount after I became familiar with the dramatic sparkling stars effect. Powdered aluminum makes silver sparkles. Powdered iron makes gold sparkles. Some people use magnesium ribbon to set off the sparkles from inside the campfire. Great for those Boy Scout Order of the Arrow induction ceremonies when I was Lodge Chief in Oratam Lodge back in Bergen County, New Jersey in the 1960s.

You can still find instructions on how to do this at websites for Boy Scout leaders. Please do not run out and try this sparkly fire magic yourself, because the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring those who purchase large amounts of certain chemicals. Small amounts, however, can be obtained at many larger magic stores and online vendors for stage effects. It is possible to make a very hot, bright and dangerous chemical torch called thermite by adding another substance, and instructions for this are also online. Maybe Holland harbored a nefarious plan, but contrary to claims in the media, all you can make with the materials found in his possession is sparkles.

This incident demonstrates just how far our collective paranoia about terrorism has spread. We need our government to protect us from serious terrorist threats, but as a society we have already allowed for an alarming erosion of civil liberties based on misinformation and fear-mongering.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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