Thursday, April 8, 2010

Gallows Humor in the Qatari Diplomatic Corps

About 13 years ago, I attended the funeral of my great aunt Clara.  She had lived a very long life and her friends and family turned out to honor her and to be with each other in a time of grief.  Aunt Clara was active in her synagogue Sisterhood, and at the end of the service the Rabbi announced that the members of the Sisterhood -- a quite elderly bunch themselves, at least the ones who were in attendance at the funeral -- would show their respect by forming their "customary honor guard" in the aisle as the casket was removed from the sanctuary.  As these little old ladies hobbled towards the aisle, my father leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Cross swords."  Then, of course, we had a problem, because we were giggling at a very serious moment of a funeral.

My father will tell you that he is at his funniest at funerals.  I was reminded of this because last night a man was taken into custody by Air Marshals on board a flight from Washington to Denver after he said he was trying to light his shoe on fire.  F-16s were scrambled and escorted the plane to the ground.  As it turns out, the passenger, a Qatari diplomat, was actually trying to sneak a cigarette in the airplane lavatory.  When he was confronted, he said he was trying to light his shoe.

There are two interpretations of what happened.  The one that surfaced first, and the one that reminded me of my father, was that the man was trying to make a joke out of what had happened.  The other interpretation making the rounds this evening is that this wasn't an attempt at a joke, it was a sarcastic barb.  In this version, the passenger wasn't saying, "Ha, ha, just trying to light my shoe!  Hardy har har!  Not smoking!  No sirree!" as much as he was saying, "You people are so ridiculous singling me out for smoking.  You probably think I was trying to set fire to my shoe, you morons."

I wasn't there, of course, so I can't tell you which interpretation is correct.  Anyone who has seen the warning signs at American airport security checkpoints, however, knows that you simply don't joke about explosives or make reference to them in any way when you're talking to security or airport or airline personnel.  So why did this man say something so incredibly foolish?

It's tempting to answer by saying he is stupid or arrogant, and I suppose either could be true.  But there is a much more human explanation -- the same explanation as the one for why my father is such a laugh riot at funerals.  It's not that either of them don't get it.  It's that on an instinctive level, this seems like the best way to deal with it.

All of us have an idea in mind of how we think people "should" act under pressure.  We also have an expectation for how we ourselves will act should we ever be in the midst of a serious crisis.  The trouble is, those expectations are based on rational thought, and rational thought goes right out the window under pressure.  It turns out there is no "right" way to act when threatened, or grieving, or in shock.  It also turns out that people do pretty nutty things because they seem like the thing to do at the time. 

My father thinks of his funniest comments at inappropriate times because they're inappropriate times, and he instinctively is fighting back against the seriousness and the sadness.  This Qatari diplomat made a remark about lighting his shoe most likely because that was precisely what he thought the crew might be worried about (and he was probably right).  Putting it out there -- in jest or in anger -- seemed on an instinctive level like the best way to deflect the situation.  No, it probably was not the best idea, but he didn't have time to think of the best idea.  In a moment of great seriousness, all he could think of to say was the cigarette-on-an-airplane equivalent of "Cross swords."


Edwin Aoki said...

It's nice to read about an alternate perspective on events rather than the same regurgitated "facts" we get from standard media, and I'm appreciative that you've taken the time to think about the Qatari diplomat as a person rather than "a generic middle eastern terrorist type".

But the other thought here is that this person is a diplomat. He was reportedly making a regular consular visit to a Denver prison in order to speak to someone who had been accused of being a terrorist. He really should have known better. And he should have exercised some diplomacy - not assumed that he could get away with smoking in a bathroom because he has diplomatic immunity (really? he had to smoke on a 4.5 hour flight? How did he get here from Qatar?), not assumed that he could make a joke about terrorism in this nation's ultrasensitive shoot-first-and-ask-questions later mentality.

I think that it's actually fortunate that he was detained by air marshals instead of regular citizens; the latter could have gone vigilante and he would have ended up very hurt.

What I expect from those people who serve our government overseas (yes, naive, I know) is at least an attempt to understand the local culture and to put the country's best foot forward. Even if you assume it was just a poor attempt at wry humor in a high stress situation, this Qatari diplomat clearly did neither.

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

Edwin -- you are of course correct. All my "he's only human" explanations only go so far as to explain why anyone could have let those words come out of his mouth. They don't excuse the series of horrendous judgments that he made, especially, as you note, as a member of the diplomatic corps. OTOH, my understanding is that people try to smoke in airplane lavatories all the time, so I'm guessing he really didn't expect to get caught!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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