Diplomats have a tendency to believe they are immune from the laws that apply to the rest of humanity. When former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan tried to enforce a no-smoking ban inside the UN’s New York headquarters, then Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov famously puffed back: “Annan doesn't own this building!"
In a sense, he was right. The U.N.’s administrator was in no position to force respect for this rule (or any other international laws, for that matter) on the world’s top diplomats.
Some time after Lavrov highlighted his remark by ceremoniously stomping his cigarette butt into the carpet of the U.N.’s delegates lounge, much to the laughter of his entourage, he was promoted to Foreign Minister.
Perhaps the Qatari diplomat who set off a fire storm this week after he was caught trying to sneak a smoke in the bathroom aboard a Denver-bound United Airlines flight will have a similarly brilliant diplomatic career. For now, however, his unfortunate attempt to shake off his airborne misbehavior with a twist of wry humor backfired rather catastrophically. When the flight attendant smelled cigarette smoke and confronted him outside the lavatory, 27-year-old Mohammed Al-Madadi had the gall to press his luck by joking that he had been trying to set his shoe on fire.
Within seconds, two U.S. Air Marshals were upon him, and Air Force jets were sent scrambling, causing a major air traffic control panic. The plane’s passengers were subjected to intense questioning and delays as cautious security personnel tried to ascertain whether the suspect had an accomplice.
By the time the whole show was over, costing undue stress and delays to civilian passengers, and sending America’s post-9/11 air safety machinery into emergency protocol, the Qatari diplomat was in the fortunate position of being able to claim immunity from prosecution.
Some people would have preferred to see him spend at least a few days in jail, as did a similarly tasteless Frenchman, who, shortly after 9/11, responded to insistent knocking on the lavatory door with a burst of mumbled sarcasm, which (unfortunately for him) included the word “bomb.”
Perhaps we should consider revoking the immunity of any and all diplomats for incidents that occur while on flight. They may be above the law here on earth, but in the skies, when fundamental issues of safety are concerned, every person should be subject to the same rules.
Michael Soussan isa former UN humanitarian worker and whistleblower. He is the author of "Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course In International Diplomacy," which was listed by The Wall Street Journal as one of the 12 best books of 2008.He teaches international affairs at New York University.
Fox Forum is on Twitter. Follow us @fxnopinion.