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Smoking diplomat

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A Qatari diplomat trying to sneak a smoke in an airplane bathroom sparked a bomb scare Wednesday night on a flight from Washington to Denver, with fighter jets scrambled and law enforcement put on high alert, officials said.
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Spencer Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; 12:00 PM

A United Airlines flight from Washington to Denver was disrupted Wednesday night after an incident in which a Qatari diplomat apparently was smoking in the plane's bathroom in violation of safety rules, authorities said.

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The passenger, Mohammed al-Madadi, was taken into custody by federal air marshals as he exited the lavatory, officials said. A federal law enforcement official said Madadi is believed to have extinguished the smoking material on his shoe and to have made a sarcastic remark to air marshals after he was confronted.

Washington Post staff writer Spencer Hsu was online Thursday, April 8, at Noon ET to discuss the incident, its aftermath and the safety of the traveling public.

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Spencer Hsu:

Spencer Hsu: Hello, Spencer Hsu here, looking forward to taking your questions about the situation yesterday aboard United Flight 663 and what it says about our world today. So buckle up, straighten up your seat backs and no smoking please as we get started in just a minute, thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So let's assume for the sake of argument that this charming gentleman's diplomatic immunity will protect him from charges. And let's assume that his thoughtless and irresponsible behavior isn't grounds to put him on a government no-fly list. Is there anything keeping United (and for that matter, every other domestic carrier) from declining to let this fellow purchase a seat and fly with them, out of courtesy to all of their other customers who might be seriously inconvenienced the next time he pulls something like this? Let him take a train or drive back to D.C. from Colorado.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks Silver Spring. We should start by admitting almost no one knows what exactly happened on that plane except Mohammed al-Madadi, the air marshals who confronted him and the people within a few feet of him. Early reports are all based on anonymous comments from authorities who have a vested interest in making their agencies look good, and the early network alerts that said someone tried to light a bomb aboard were flat-out wrong.

Having said that, it's pretty clear cut, federal law bans smoking aboard U.S. airline flights, punishable by a fine that ranges from $2,200 for smoking in your seat or the cabin to $3,300 for smoking in the lavatory.

It's a safe bet this incident will be entered into the relevant databases, although if he keeps his nose clean I doubt airlines would refuse his money.

I take your point though. Whose fault is it that someone who smokes and (allegedly) says something stupid to a person on his way out of an airplane lavatory can create an international incident?

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Chicago, Ill.: I'm pretty stunned that the Qatari Embassy would issue such a defiant press release so soon after this event. Where's the apology? I mean, we have a young man from the Persian Gulf acting suspiciously in the first class cabin of a United flight out of Washington -- so far that's the September 11th m.o. to a T. And he's lighting something that produces smoke -- what the?!? -- and apparently saying something sarcastic about a shoe bomb.

I've known born-and-raised Americans who got into trouble for joking about bombs at the airport. What kind of diplomat would think this behavior is acceptable? Thanks.

Spencer Hsu: Right Chicago. You're referring to this statement from the Qatari ambassador, Ali bin Fahad al-Hajri.

"This diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity," Hajri says on the embassy's website. "The facts will reveal that this was a mistake, and we urge all concerned parties to avoid reckless judgments or speculation."

I think this statement also caught senior U.S. officials off guard, and is being worked on by State Department and Qatari officials and their communications people.

The Qatar spokeswoman has since said that while Madadi was traveling on official business, whatever he did that alarmed authorities may not have been on official business, and so they are still trying to get to the bottom of things and decide Madadi's fate.

And you're certainly right, many people who fly frequently know that saying anything about a bomb or explosives is not a joking matter, especially not since after 9/11,not after the Christmas Day bombing attempt over Detroit.

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Washington, DC: I understand diplomatic immunity and its intent that local laws not be used as a means of political harassment. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the diplomatic staff to do their best to adhere to local laws.

No smoking on airplanes has been around for quite sometime in the US. Since he studied at GWU, then he is well aware of this.

If they do nothing, then every staff person with diplomatic immunity will feel they can flaunt these laws without consequence.

Unfortunately, the only thing they can do is expel him from the country. If the administration wants to show how serious they take this, they should also expel Ali bin Fahad al-Hajri, his boss, since he needs to be held accountable for his subordinate's actions.

I am a smoker, but have no sympathy for this kind of stupidity nor tolerance for this kind of abuse of diplomatic immunity.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks for the comment, your point stands for itself and makes good sense.

I want to throw one thing out there though. I think what this episode will tap into, particularly among U.S. Muslims and the U.S. government's friends overseas, is the sense that in the United States there is a separate offense of traveling while appearing Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent. I think that may be part of the dynamic you'll see play out.

None of this excuses smoking, if that's what he did, but this incident strikes a raw nerve among some readers that if you look a certain way, you will be treated differently by law enforcement.

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Diplomat or not,...: sometimes you just have to say you are sorry and accept responsibility for stupid things you have said.

Take your lumps, buddy.

Spencer Hsu: And yes, reinforcing the previous writer's point.

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New York, N.Y.: Of course, one cannot generalize from the acts of a single individual. And yet, this incident does play into so many stereotypes. Is it fair to draw any conclusions at all about Arabian attitudes toward Western rules and culture from this event?

Spencer Hsu: We're trying to learn more today and expect there will be more facts that emerge to flesh out the details. Obviously Qatar is one of U.S.'s stronger allies in the Arab world, one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, and its diplomatic corps is well educated and cosmopolitan. While details of Madadi's personal life aren't known, friends and colleagues describe him as perhaps something of a young hipster, so it would seem premature to stereotype him as anything other than a young man.

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Florida:

By the way, does this smell at all like the "smoking" story is a fabrication to keep from having to admit than an "ally" was trying to take down a plane?

Spencer Hsu: U.S. authorities have said clearly there were no explosives on the plane, no trace of explosives on his shoes, that there is and was no threat and the security investigation has been resolved.

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Norfolk, Va.: Do you think that expelling this diplomat is appropriate?

Spencer Hsu: The decision is pending further "fact-finding," the embassy's spokeswoman said. They expect to have more to say later today, and people in the U.S. government believe it is.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Isn't part of the problem that in some cultures smoking is still fashionable behavior, at least for men, so they think that western smoking bans are unreasonable?

Plus, for those who come from the upper classes, aren't they accustomed to thinking themselves above the rules that are applied to what they perceive to be the lower classes?

Spencer Hsu: Perhaps so, but hard to say just yet. As the previous writer noted, stereotypes abound and it's difficult to generalize without more facts.

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Maryland: I guess my question (and of course this is all speculation) is would a white guy have been treated with the same level of suspicion?

Spencer Hsu: One part of this is that after the 12/25 bombing attempt by a Nigerian man, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam-to-Detroit, the U.S. government imposed added security screening for people from and traveling through 14 countries. 13 of them were predominantly Muslim, the other was Cuba.

Security experts, civil liberties groups, U.S. Muslim organizations, and diplomats from countries such as Nigeria, which along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia was on the list, protested that the rule was both unfair and unworkable.

In short, they said the rule would essentially profile 675 million US Muslims, passport-holders of those countries, and travelers there, while giving al Qaeda a road map of where else to recruit people.

Just a week ago, the U.S. said it will change the system later this month to focus on intelligence-based screening. But U.S. relations are still smarting from that overbroad initial reaction.

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No respect for smoking limits: I was married to a resident assistant at GWU, and I can tell you that there were many students from that part of the world who just refused to accept the bans on no smoking in public places. My wife would catch these students smoking in the elevators and they'd be fined $50 per infraction. Many tried to pay her directly in cash from their pockets. They seemed to have little regard for the reason behind the laws and considered the fine as nothing more than a fee they paid for their right to smoke where they wanted. (I don't claim this was universal among Middle Eastern students, but it does suggest a cultural gap of some sort.)

Spencer Hsu: Thank you for pointing this out, we're pursuing the same thing.

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if you look a certain way, you will be treated differently by law enforcement: Welcome to being black in America or being a woman in America or being any minority in America.

Racial profiling or stereotyping goes on all over, e.g. El Al Israel Airlines. It's just this silly notion that it doesn't happen here in America that is the problem.

Spencer Hsu: Yes, and this is the rub. U.S. aviation security policy is to not racially profile. That does make the United States different. But you might find many people argue that the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the courts argue help make the country different from the rest of the world, where we have more Americans getting along better with fewer terrorism problems than other countries that have narrower views of civil liberties.

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Re detaining passenger witnesses for hours: What if some of those passenger witnesses who were forcibly detained for hours had connecting flights they absolutely had to catch? What did the authorities do to help them out?

Spencer Hsu: Right, the collateral damage is to taxpayers, the public and other travelers. In a sense, we're all subjected to the cost of security concerns every time we stand in an airport line or find those little 3-ounce bottles.

Is it possible to prevent "misunderstandings" from leading to F-16 fighter jet intercepts and hours-long investigations.

We should learn more about what went wrong here in a few hours and the cautionary tale will go forward.

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Fairfax, Va.: Let's get over this one. Smoking in a bathroom does happen, there's a two grand civil penalty he probably won't have to pay, and the sarcastic comment is not good, but I wish I had immunity to make such towards law enforcement now and then. This is not a big deal and we should move on.

Spencer Hsu: Gotcha.

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Anonymous: A part of me hopes they gave the guy the business, but this also points out the inherent weakness of the system to catch everything.

Did he have a match or did he still have a lighter? Those items are purely identified by the faith of the traveler.

Spencer Hsu: I wanted to put these two points together.

One frustrating thing here is that in some ways, it's the very difficulty of stopping terrible things from happening aboard airplanes that cause misunderstandings to escalate into big disruptions.

As we have seen, part of the lesson from the Christmas Day bombing is despite all the changes made over the years, Abdulmutallab was able to avoid detection before trying to blow up the Northwest flight. Part of the U.S. government's reaction may have exacerbated tensions with U.S. allies, and this current episode plays into this problem of how much security is enough.

The problem is, next time if heaven forbid there is an attack, all the criticism will run the other direction.

Will the public have the same sense of realism in acknowledging that risks are ever-present.

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Kingstowne, Va.: "We should start by admitting almost no one knows what exactly happened on that plane except Mohammed al-Madadi, the air marshals who confronted him and the people within a few feet of him."

So, why are we having this discussion now? Also, why did you duck the question when someone asked what you thought? Are you not able to offer your opinion and maintain journalistic neutrality?

Spencer Hsu: Yeah, we're having the chat to share as much as we know now, and I figure the more objective I am the more reliable I will be both to my sources and my readers.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: The great Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers was killed in a plane crash caused by someone smoking in the airplane lavatory -- the smoker didn't extinguish his butt and it smoldered in the trash, causing a fire. I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who flouts this rule -- it's a matter of safety, pure and simple.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks

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D.C.: "If they do nothing, then every staff person with diplomatic immunity will feel they can flaunt these laws without consequence."

Does anyone recall the Georgian diplomat who was driving drunk, 60 mph on Conn Ave in the late 1990s and killed a pedestrian? There was no punishment. Just an apology and he was recalled back to Georgia.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks again.

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I'm Confused: Guy is smoking on an airplane. Guy makes comment to air marshal about shoe bomb.

Where does racial profiling come into play?

Spencer Hsu: I think this could be one of those eye-of-the-beholder issues.

In a different context over a matter of different severity, let's say somebody is pulled over for speeding or with a broken tail-light, says something that may or may not have been provocative and an altercation results and the person is apprehended for disturbing the piece. Certainly many will argue that the law enforcement officer was enforcing the law and using appropriate judgment, that the individual made an error in judgment.

Others might argue the subject may have been pulled over selectively or subjectively based on other factors, and absent those factors would not have been pulled over in the first place, or that his remarks would not have been taken as provocative.

I'm not saying any of this is analogous to this situation, we don't know, but different parts of the world see U.S. aviation security in different lights.

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Tampa, Fla.: Hello. I think it's very unfortunate for Qatari diplomat who caused the flight incident. Even, he has a diplomatic immunity, however, the bottom line that he made his poor judgment in his professional diplomat. He should know better and for sake of passengers' safety in flight.

Instead of charge against him, I hope that he will be subject of disciplinary action by the government of Qatar and State Department.

Spencer Hsu: This may be exactly what unfolds. Thanks.

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Alexandria, Va.: That Georgian diplomat pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 7 to 21 years.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks.

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El Al Airlines?: If there is one airline in the world that does NOT use racial profiling, it is the Israeli airline El Al. The fact that they are successful at preventing terrorist incidents may lead some to mistakenly believe, like an earlier commenter, that they use racial profiling. They don't. What they do is question every single passenger and closely watch the passenger's reactions and body language in addition to how the passenger answers the questions. Many Arab passengers travel on El Al with no problem and yet El Al's superior methods are the way they caught the Irish woman, whose husband, unbeknownst to her, had placed an explosive in her luggage. Sometimes the answer to a simple question like, "did you pack your own luggage" will cause greater scrutiny.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks for reading.

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Vienna, Va.: When I was in Egypt 10 years ago, I flew on several flights to and from the country and internally, and there was no smoking on any of them. I don't think we should assume that "they do it (smoking) over there and think they can do it anywhere."

Spencer Hsu: Thanks for adding.

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NYC: At first, I laughed at Florida's question about whether the cigarette story was just a fabrication to hide the fact that an allied diplomat was trying to take down a plane, but then I thought about the Egyptian Air crash a few years back, and how deeply the results of that investigation were buried -- presumably to preserve good relations between the governments involved.

As a reporter, do you ever worry that the wool is being pulled over your eyes in that way?

Spencer Hsu: Yes all the time, and we're continuing to report, and we'll update on the web and in tomorrow's newspaper.

On this note, thank you for all the questions and comments, please do so again next time, and I'll go back to work.

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