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Not So Funny: Qatari Diplomat's Shoe Joke

“It is better to be wrong than to be vague,” nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson once said.

This came to mind after I read news reports regarding the Qatari diplomat who caused a bomb scare on a United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Denver on Wednesday night. The man, 27-year-old Mohammed al-Madadi, was initially feared to be a terrorist — according to three consecutive Department of Homeland Security (DHS) internal memos read to me by a DHS official on the condition of anonymity. NORAD sent fighter jets aloft, the White House was notified, and a small battalion of federal and local law enforcement met the airplane.

But by the following morning, federal officials confirmed that Mohammed al-Madadi was a diplomat and that he was not carrying explosives. His lighting something on fire in the first-class lavatory was an attempt to smoke, they said. These officials also said that al-Madadi was joking when he told air marshals he “was trying to light his shoes on fire.”

Initial news reports danced around the severity of the incident, offering a litany of old adages about just needing a smoke. “Smoking while Arab” jokes flooded the blogs. Along with the “good news” that “nobody panicked” came the vague suggestion that the decision to scramble Air Force’s F-16 fighter jets to “escort” the commercial aircraft and its 157 passengers into the Denver airport was somehow the reaction of an overzealous military — and not a justified response to the unexplainable actions of the smoking man from Qatar. Al-Madadi’s boss, the Qatari ambassador, released an official statement saying the whole thing was one big “mistake.”

I spent quite a bit of time at Nellis Air Force Base this past year and examined a number of fighter jet weapons bays. I can tell you that the thought of inadvertently winding up in the cross hairs of one such dogfighter ought to make anyone think twice before accepting this event as some kind of a smoker’s joke. But this is the power of the press. Never mind that for a brief period of time Wednesday night United Airlines Flight 633 was the potential military target. There is nothing vague — and yet there was nothing written — about that.

I called Alison Bradley, the Qatari embassy press liaison, to learn more. What would compel a diplomat of the Persian Gulf sheikhdom to act in such a reckless manner on an airplane? Had this diplomat gone rogue? Bradley told me that she was busy with more important things “like dealing with officials in Doha, the State Department, and authorities in the United States.”

And then, voila, by the afternoon the press pendulum swung to the other side. Suddenly the story reversed course, taking on a more sinister tone. It turned out that Mohammed al-Madadi was on his way to the Supermax prison in Colorado to visit fellow citizen and convicted al-Qaeda sleeper agent Ali al-Marri who is incarcerated there. “Qatari Diplomat Was Going to See Qaeda Inmate,” blazed a headline at ABC. Like dominoes, various news agencies followed suit. Suddenly, the suggestion was: forget the smoking jokes, it’s okay to be aghast.

The diplomat never made it to Supermax. He was questioned and released. It turns out that Mohammed al-Madadi will not be charged. The alleged quid pro quo is that al-Madadi leaves the country and does not come back. Officials on both sides are embarrassed and want the whole incident to go away. America runs its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq out of the oil rich nation of Qatar and the oil rich nation likes what America offers in return.

The moral of the story seems to be that the whole incident is better off left vague.