06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Diplo-dunce Avoids the Murtaugh Rule

In the 1989 buddy cop classic, Lethal Weapon 2, LAPD lawmen Martin Riggs and Sgt. Roger Murtaugh battle krugerrand-craving South African racists. The jerks from Johannesburg carry diplomatic immunity. As such, they do as they please, even if they have to kill Riggs' attractive gal pal.


As the body count rises and the South African diplomats flee, Murtaugh faces the prime evildoer, who brags that "diplomatic immunity" makes him untouchable. Murtaugh -- never one to deal with paperwork, much less international relations -- ignores the comment, shoots the South African in the brain and explains that the dead man's immunity has been "revoked."

It was a great end to one of the feel-good movies of the year.

I thought a lot about the Murtaugh Rule Wednesday night as I wandered about Denver International Airport. I, along with 20 other reporters, raced to the scene after a young diplomat from Qatar left his first class seat on United Flight 663 -- bound from Washington, D.C. to DIA -- to cop a secret smoke in the bathroom. When confronted, the diplomat reportedly joked about lighting his shoes on fire.

The diplo-dunce quickly learned that light-hearted references to terror don't play well in mid-air. According to reports, Mohammad Yaaquob Al-Madadi, the third secretary for the Qatari Embassy in Washington, caused all the fuss. This low-ranking Qatari clown became the focus of attention by federal air marshals. They led him off the plane, but quickly let him go.

One hopes Mr. Al-Madadi will remain smoke free during his next in-flight comedy routine.

Still, diplomatic immunity is a nice trump card. Apparently, it lets you bypass the common rules of decency, and the airline-smoking ban that went into effect 20 years ago.

So what is to be done?

Clearly something is owed the 150 or so passengers left to stew in their body fluids for hours while the United Airlines plane sat on the tarmac. And let's not forget the taxpayer expense of scrambling two F-16s to escort the fight to DIA.

"I think we should all get to poke him with a stick," an elderly widow told me Wednesday night as she waited inside DIA for her niece to exit the United Airlines flight. The women, who declined to give her name, lost her husband just two days ago. She was in good spirits but a bit peeved at the man from Qatar. When told that the man apparently joked about setting his shoes on fire, the widow quipped: "Maybe we should give him two pokes."

Given the mild nature of the incident, it appears the diplo-dip won't face much more than a trip home to the sands of Qatar. For now, it appears the man simply acted foolishly then made a dumb comment -- hardly the stuff of true terror.

"Politically, anything could happen," said Troy Eid, a former United States Attorney for the district of Colorado. "If this was just a mistake, the government (of Qatar) would do an apology. ... The relationship between the United States and Qatar is incredibly important. Qatar is a significant basing location for the U.S. and a significant source of intelligence in the region. There is a long and strong political relationship and both countries have a lot of incentives to play nice on this."

Nice was hardly the adjective of choice for passenger Matt Erickson of Longmont, who was homebound following a wonderful week in D.C. Erickson came to D.C. as part of an education trip for 53 students at his former school in California. He snuggled into his mid-plane seat, fell asleep and looked forward to an uneventful flight home. Instead, he -- along with all other passengers -- remained stranded inside the plane, questioned by the FBI, then released nearly five hours after landing.

Erickson was too upset to talk about the mess, but his wife, who waited for her husband's release inside DIA, shared his thoughts Thursday with me.

"My husband's pissed," Debbie Adams said. "He said it was ridiculous, as far as how they had to sit on the plane for two hours. He said it was like a training exercise for morons.

"I don't know anything about diplomatic immunity, Adams continued. "So maybe he (Al-Madadi) does not get arrested, but who pays for the F-16s? It is asinine, a minor incident that was blown out of proportion and inconvenienced so many people ... I have a very unhappy husband right now. I am ignoring him today."

Even trial lawyers have taken a pass on this potential tort.

"America is sill the land of plenty, but not plenty of time," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver prosecutor and long-time trial attorney. "I think it is outrageous that his irresponsibility cost so many people so much time and trouble. The problem is the damages to each individual are relatively small, so legal action is not going to be pursued."

I am not saying this low-rent diplo-fool warrants a bullet to the head. I just wonder where Sgt. Murtaugh is when you need him?