Air Farce: Qatari Diplomat Cuffed on Plane for Smoking, & Bad Joke

Karl Marx once remarked that every historical event occurs twice, first as tragedy and then as farce.

On Wednesday evening we got the farcical version of the shoe bomber when the third secretary of the Qatari Embassy appears to have sneaked a smoke in the lavatory of a plane headed for Denver. The flight attendants noticed the smoke, and confronted Mohammad Yagoub al-Madadi, 27. When asked what he had been doing in there, he appears to have made a sarcastic remark about setting his shoes on fire. Big mistake.

The alarmed flight attendants called on air marshalls, who firmly marched al-Madadi back to his first class seat and sat on either side of him. The pilot kept the plane low, and two F-16s scrambled to escort the plane (and no doubt prevent it from being misused if taken over). The whole scenario reminds me of a Monty Python skit.

Al-Madadi is destined to enter the annals of persons who joked around about serious security matters on planes or at airports, and who came to rue the day. There was the pilot who as a practical joke paraded around in front of passengers conspicuously reading a book, “How to Fly a Plane.” He was fired. And then there are all the passengers who earned themselves an extra long interview at security checks in airports by making jokes with the TSA inspectors that included the word “bomb.” Some things you don’t make light of.

There are only about 200,000 native, citizen Qataris. They are among the richest populations in the world per capita, since their small Gulf country sits atop an ocean of natural gas. Their emir gives the US an airbase, al-Udeid, and has been instrumental in capturing key al-Qaeda fugitives. Qataris are often pro-American, and Qatari pilots flew missions against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War alongside US pilots.

Al-Madadi might have diplomatic immunity. But he doesn’t have Late Night immunity, and should get ready to be the butt of many jokes. Although it is true that the incident might not have been taken quite o seriously by the authorities of it had not involved an Arab, lots of Euro-Americans have run into trouble, as I noted, for inappropriate and lame attempts at comedy at airports or on planes. This story is one of undue arrogance on al-Madadi’s part. Likely a Swede who behaved and spoke the same way would also have been frog-marched off the plane.

Also al-Madadi should recognize that he has a bad nicotine addiction and give up smoking, which will give him lung cancer and tragically shorten his life (not to mention put him in compromising positions like sneaking a few puffs in an airplane bathroom). I’ve often thought that Arabs are always worrying about nefarious plots against them by Americans, but then they voluntarily smoke American cigarettes like chimneys and put themselves in early graves. Many more of them have died in this way than from direct American military or covert action.

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6 Responses

  1. While it is certainly unwise for passengers to joke around in the way that you describe, the unprofessional over-reaction by those responsible for airline security tells me that they aren't really serious about security but really engaged in security theatre.

    This is hardly more professional than the absurd laxness of security on American domestic flights prior to 2001.

  2. At Arlanda in Sweden in 2004, I was returning to the US with a nyckelharpa, a Swedish folk-music instrument which is something of a national emblem; a picture of one is on the back of the 50-kronor note. The case had to go through special handling because of size. I told the security guard that it was a nyckelharpa. He said, "As long as it was checked baggage he didn't care if it was a machine-gun." I doubt that a TSA guard would have made such a joke.

  3. After Leno and Letterman and the rest of a gang have a field day with this guy … can we get him to pay the bill for this whole incident? I mean, just the fuel for those jet fighters must cost a pretty penny.

  4. Of related interest regarding the air marshal program in general, see Bruce Schneier's commentary, The Effectiveness of Air Marshalls. It turns out that air marshals are being arrested at a faster rate than they are making arrests…

  5. This incident will trigger a myriad of meeting and memos within the DHS, FBI, and Whitehouse about the use of toilet facilities on airline planes. Some will advocate removal or permanently shuttering them. The more moderate proposals may include mandatory installation of video cameras (and, of course tight restrictions on who can view the video feed). Removal of toilet doors is probably off the table but good fodder for cartoonists.

    This incident will certainly pile some new rules and restrictions on the growing pile already in place. The question is will there ever be a reduction? Can we ever return to days gone by, or will the pile keep growing forever?

  6. “I’ve often thought that Arabs are always worrying about nefarious plots against them by Americans, but then they voluntarily smoke American cigarettes like chimneys and put themselves in early graves.”

    I literally can’t count the number of iterations of this conversation I’ve had with Syrian cab drivers


    me “no thanks”

    him “you don’t smoke? why not?”

    me “it kills you”

    him “no it doesnt. that’s a lie. And, if it does it’s because it’s an American plot to kill Arabs”

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