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'Booked on Suspicion'

In Louis Jordan’s classic song, “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” which recounts a riotous party on Rampart Street eventually raided by the police, the hapless protagonist is nabbed by the cops and “booked on suspicion.”

Anyone who remembers TV cop shows, like “Dragnet” and “Highway Patrol,” recalls dozens of bad guys hauled up “on suspicion” by Sgt. Joe Friday or Chief Dan Matthews. When I was a kid absorbing all this jurisprudence, I had no idea that “suspicion” was not an actual crime that could send you up the river. Even today, I don’t know if “suspicion” was the authentic argot of real cops in those innocent days.

Regardless of the era, if the police say they’re arresting a guy on “suspicion of burglary” or some such pretext, they still have to muster enough evidence for a real arraignment. This rule applied to even pre-Miranda cops like Joe Friday. Without a charge, the suspect, no matter how suspicious he looked, had to be cut loose.

American justice has always been exceptionally clear on this point: Suspicion by the forces of law and order against an individual implies no guilt whatsoever. Official suspicion confers on the State no right to accuse, pursue, arrest, detain or imprison. Anyone. This principle survived two centuries of challenge, ‘til September 11, 2001.

After that day, a pall of fear settled over America, rendering it acceptable for the State to suspect, seize, convict and imprison people for contemplating crimes they never committed, never actually organized and were not — most of the time — remotely capable of committing.

After reading about several such cases, all involving dark-skinned males of Middle Eastern origin, I thought of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue. Now and then, a professional burglar named John Dortmunder would meet in the O.J.’s back room with his confederates — Andy Kelp, Tiny, Murch and Murch’s mother — to plot the capers chronicled in a brilliant series of comic novels by Donald E. Westlake. I thought of the O.J. Bar & Grill because — although Dortmunder’s crew actively conceived crimes, planned them openly and assembled all the equipment necessary to commit the crimes — they remained entirely guiltless of any crime ‘til they actually pulled the job — picked the lock, disabled the alarm, entered the premises, cracked the safe, etc.

At least this was so until September 11, 2001. It was certainly true for Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny, Murch and Murch’s mom. They didn’t actually need to hunker in the back room at the O.J. Bar & Grill to plan their crime, because planning a crime is no crime. If it were, Donald E. Westlake, author of at least a hundred crime novels, would be guilty of at least a hundred imaginary crimes — as would authors like Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain, and Hollywood crooks like Newman, Redford and Edward G. Robinson.

Imagination — even when devious — is not a crime in America.

Well, WAS not. Now, it is.

In the past eight years, a number of Swarthy-Americans, many as openly hostile to the U.S. government as Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Patriot movement, have been arrested for “material support of terrorism,” or — in Jack Webb’s terms — “booked on suspicion.” But, unlike all those outlaws swept up in “Dragnet,” the Swarthy-Americans jailed after 9/11 were not charged with a more serious, tangible, evidence-associated crime after the 24- or 48-hour “suspicion” pretense had expired.

Indeed, they were kept in jail, without bail. They were indicted, tried, and convicted of “suspicion.” Their juries of non-Swarthy peers had been convinced by the Feds that pondering a break-in, a murder or a bombing is the exact same as carrying it out.

If you thunk it, you done it. And you were, in several of these cases, sentenced to federal prison for the rest of your life.

There have been controversies since 9/11 about some of the extra-legal, dubiously constitutional and Draconian measures imposed on Americans by the so-called Patriot Act. But there’s been nary a squawk, from politicians or even from lawyers normally willing to defend serial murderers and child molesters, about these “material support” convictions — most of which involved no “materials” and boil down to tossing people into the dungeon for Being Brown and Thinking Bad Thoughts.

The Christian foundations for these expanded prosecutorial privileges are myriad and easy to find. Matthew 5:28 and Thomas Aquinas are popular. But I prefer the Baltimore Catechism of my grade-school days, wherein “material support” would be a “sin of intent,” or “a sin committed in wish but not in reality.” For instance, if I — at age 14 — had imagined myself fondling my buxom algebra teacher, but never actually laid a finger on her, nor had even the remotest hope of ever doing so, God was not concerned with practicalities. By thinking about Mrs. Thompson’s boobs, I had sinned against Mrs. Thompson’s boobs. I had to shlep that transgression to the confessional and admit my sin. After that, a handful of Hail Marys and Our Fathers and a sincere Act of Contrition squared me with God and send me back to math class with a clean conscience…

… Until the next time Mrs. Thompson got careless with her top button.

The latest example of an imaginary terrorist lusting in his heart after Mrs. Thompson’s boobs just showed up in court. From 2001 to 2008 — without actually DOING anything — a Swarthy-American named Tarek Mehanna thought about attacking a shopping mall, or else U.S. soldiers overseas, or maybe a politician or two. He wasn’t really sure. He vetted his idea with “terrorist groups abroad.” They laughed in his face. He tried to acquire guns, something almost anybody in America can do. He couldn’t get ‘em. After eight years of thinking — and talking — about a crime, Mehanna owned not one item necessary to attempt any felonious or terrorist act, or even a misdemeanor. He had recruited only two “co-conspirators,” one of whom was a federal informant. Eight years of impure thoughts and the guy was still miles away from Mrs. Thompson, his only pal was a stool pigeon, and he was looking at life in Leavenworth.

Sgt. Friday would be embarrassed to arrest this putz. He couldn’t get a seat in the back room at the O.J. even if he paid the tab. Father, tell him his penance, and let him go.

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