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A diplomat from Qatar has been taken into custody for causing a disturbance on a Denver-bound flight Wednesday evening. Authorities said the man apparently smoked a cigarette in the airplane's bathroom. When asked about the smell of smoke, he joked he'd been trying to light his shoes, a reference to the 2001 shoebomber Richard Reed, causing a bomb scare.
The strong reaction reflects a nation still jittery about any suspicious activity on an airplane – particularly after a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane last Christmas. That incident prompted hand-wringing and a review of airport security procedures nationwide.
The Associated Press reported that military jets escorted the plane to Denver International Airport, landing about 7 p.m. local time. The Qatari diplomat, identified as Mohammed Al-Madadi, was later questioned for hours. He will not face charges, the AP reports.
Some passengers complained about being kept on the plane for an hour after landing, and then held for questioning. One was Mei Turcotte, 26, who told the AP that authorities had over-reacted. "He went quietly. There was not a scene," Turcotte said. "They made this into something that was ridiculous."
His message read: "Only in America ... a Qatari diplomat decides to light up a cigarette in the bathroom and then uses his shoe to put it out," Erickson wrote. "He then jokes about it to the guy sitting next to him, who happens to be the freakin' air marshal."
The Los Angeles Times noted that smoking on an airplane is a felony. It reported that the Qatar embassy early Thursday confirmed that the man was a diplomat.
"We respect the necessity of special security precautions involving air travel," Ambassador Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri said in a statement, "but this diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity.
"The facts will reveal that this was a mistake, and we urge all concerned parties to avoid reckless judgments or speculation," the ambassador said.
Complaints arise frequently that US airplane security measures are overkill. The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum wrote in 2005 that the $5.5 billion annual budget of the Transportation Security Agency was misspent money.
Referring to the "agony" of long airport lines, she wrote: "Almost none of the agony you are experiencing is making you safer, at least not to any statistically significant or economically rational degree." She cited a study estimating the loss to the US economy from long airport lines to be $32 billion per year.
A 2005 study said the United States spends $4 billion per year on passenger screenings alone. The study quoted risk analyst David Banks saying, "If terrorists force us to redirect resources away from sensible programs and future growth, in order to pursue unachievable but politically popular levels of domestic security, then they have won an important victory that mortgages our future."