Where there's smoke

Jose Padilla lit up a stogie and was nailed for contemplating arson. Have I written something that could easily be misconstrued by a jury of my peers?

Published August 22, 2007 10:21AM (EDT)

They put Jose Padilla away for having filled out an application form to attend an al-Qaida training camp, a milestone in criminal-conspiracy law that makes me wonder about you readers and what you might do that some ambitious prosecutor could trace back to something I wrote 16 months ago.

I'm serious. Here we are, consorting on the page, in the old conspiracy between Author and Unnamed Others, my hand on your shoulder, whispering stuff, speaking freely -- including things I may not have thought through a-l-l-o-f-t-h-e-l-e-g-a-l-i-m-p-l-i-c-a-t-i-o-n-s-o-f -- so let me just say this: I accept no liability for whatever you may or may not do after reading my column. It has nothing to do with me. Zero. Zilch.

You readers know me and I don't know you. This now makes me nervous. We are invisibly linked through words I have written, and yet the meaning of those words, as determined by a jury of 12 men and women good and true, could be far, far from what I intended, and as I sit there at the defense table in the Miami courtroom, smelling the musky cologne of your idiot attorney, looking past him at you, you wretched cretin, as the linguistics expert for the State, a tall bun-headed woman with a Ph.D. in literary deconstruction, testifies that the subtext of my column in question was a command that you plant an explosive device in the heel of your cowboy boot and try to run through airport security hollering, "I'm a-comin', Mama!" I am going to think back on my life and wish I had become a gardener. Nobody was ever indicted for watering plants.

I know people who went to prison for protesting the war in Vietnam and it is nothing to be taken lightly. It can mess with a person's mind and not every mind survives the message. You'd like to imagine that you'd be heroic like Nelson Mandela or Voltaire but I am not looking for opportunities to be heroic. I am 65 years old, thank you very much, and very, very uninterested in spending time in prison. My plan is to moulder gently in my own home and read the books I wrote term papers about as an English major and dandle my grandkids and at some point write a heartwarming memoir about my years in broadcasting.

So whatever weirdness you are plotting, stop it right now. Put those liquids or gels away. Stop going to the airport and asking strangers to carry packages aboard the aircraft. Stop offering to pack their bags for them. Whatever suspicious things you are doing, stop it right now. Don't look away as if I were talking to somebody else. I am talking to YOU. Yes. You.

I don't know you. I never knew you. I never asked you to read this column. Isn't that right?

If so, sign here: .......................................

Date: .............................................

Anybody who does not sign is hereby assumed not to be a reader of this column and therefore no responsibility of mine. Tell your lawyer to go bark up some other tree.

Back when I was a child, thanks to my rigorous upbringing that included stories about Boys From Good Homes Who Fell In With Bad Company, I assumed that I would wind up in a federal penitentiary, and that is why I didn't go into engineering or medicine or law, professions that give you some definite criminal capabilities. Instead I went into the paragraph profession, but now that conspiracy has become such a useful all-purpose tool for prosecutors, I feel rather exposed. What if I had written years ago that the World Trade Center was ugly, which it was, and I wish it didn't exist, and what if that paragraph had been found paper-clipped to the al-Qaida application?

Ever since that dreadful September day, the Current Vice-President has been obsessed with the idea that someone somewhere must be prevented from doing the horrible thing they may or may not be about to do and if the Constitution and common law and common sense must be crunched underfoot in order to prevent that, then so be it.

Where there is smoke, there is fire. This, however, is rough on smokers, if the fire department is called out whenever someone exhales. And that's what happened to Mr. Padilla. He lit up a stogie and was nailed for contemplating arson. God forgive us our zealous cruelty.

(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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