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.