The shoe-bomber who wasn’t

THE SHOE-BOMBER WHO WASN’T…. The initial reports certainly sounded scary. Around 10:00 last night, several outlets began reporting that a diplomat from Qatar attempted to blow up a United Airlines flight over American soil. Soon after, CNN’s newest political correspondent had posted an item on his blog connecting the incident to the Obama administration decision to drop the phrase “Islamic radicalism” from a document outlining national security strategy.

The truth was a little less terrifying. OK, more than a little. Mohammed al-Madadi, the third secretary at the Embassy of Qatar, was apparently trying to sneak a smoke on the plane’s bathroom.

Air marshals approached him after he exited a lavatory that smelled smoky, officials said.

No explosives were found on the plane nor traces of explosives on the shoes of the passenger, a U.S. official said. Broadcast networks initially reported that, inside the lavatory, the passenger had attempted to ignite explosives, possibly concealed in his shoes.

An official suggested that the disturbance might have resulted from a “misunderstanding” created by the passenger’s response to marshals’ questioning.

The “misunderstanding,” by some accounts, was the result of sarcasm gone awry. An air marshal smelled smoke and asked the diplomat to explain himself. A DHS official said the man made an “unfortunate comment,” which apparently included a joke about trying to set his shoes on fire.

The air marshals did not find the snide joke especially amusing.

According to accounts from other passengers, there was “no struggle, no uproar.”

The plane landed in Denver without incident shortly before 9 p.m., though it landed with an escort of two F-16s. The Qatari diplomat is reportedly in FBI custody, at least for now. [Update: The AP reports this morning that he has been released.]

As far as the political discourse is concerned, this was one of those instances in which the hair-trigger panic was not helpful. Conservatives anxious to blame the president for something new will have to wait for a real incident to come along.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.