When you hang out your journalistic shingle as one who comments or offers opinion, your most painful torture is when an issue comes along in which you find yourself on two sides of the same fence.

That’s where I am in the pat-down, scanner debate with the TSA. You give me five minutes and I can make a case for either keeping them as necessary parts of our national security program or I can point out holes in the system that make groping and scans ridiculous.

Though I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles, was a private pilot and even flew sailplanes for a time, I haven’t flown commercially for years. I can think of no clear issue that would get me to change that status. Oh, maybe a vacation to Hawaii or further. And then only with an ample supply of Jack Daniels. But that’s it. Just won’t do it!

The pats and scans didn’t make the difference. I was a non-passenger long before they came long. I rank airlines right up there with crooked bankers, insider traders and the Taliban when asked about any of ‘em.

They’ve cut leg room to squeeze in more seats while making seats narrower and shallower than previously. They’ve added charges to everything but breathing and they’ll get to that soon enough. Long lines, late arrivals and departures, higher prices, discontinued routes, surly flight attendants. You can probably add a couple more issues. Where’s the incentive to fly?

But I digress. Security is the issue here. Or lack of it. And that’s the balance point that tips me either way on the issue: our lack of real security in transportation.

We’re now nearly undressing people to get onboard. Yet the luggage they check … in far too many cases … goes on the same plane without being examined. So the suicide bomber rides above the bomb instead of wearing it. BOOM is BOOM no matter where the damned bomb is.

If every parcel and piece of luggage on the plane got the same close attention I would at the boarding area, maybe I could buy off on all this pat and scan. But it doesn’t. So where’s the real safety?

Same holds true for the freight airlines, trains and ships move all over the world. And nearly all of it escapes close inspection. What’s to keep a dirty bomb out of the Port of Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Miami, Portland or anywhere else? Just a little briefcase-sized device behind or under the seat of one of hundreds of thousands of imported cars or in the shipping container with the thousands of boxes of oranges? Do we look in everyone? Are you kidding?

And, by the way, the food handlers, baggage crews, fuel truck operators on and around your plane don’t go through the same inspection daily that you do when you fly. Duh?

Then there’s the other side of the issue. Since 9/11, we know a strike can come anywhere, from anywhere, using God knows what as the delivery device. Reasonable people know planes are great platforms for terrorists. Once in the air, they are nothing more than controlled explosive devices with people aboard. It would be foolish to ignore the prime requisite that aircraft be handled by safe pilots going about their work in a routine manner by eliminating inspections. Making efforts to keep the flying public safe is just the common sense thing to do.

But are we doing that effectively? Are the new passenger hurdles the answer? No, they aren’t if we continue to allow unexamined luggage to go up with them. Whether the terrorist wears the bomb or checks it in at the counter, detonation has the same desired result.

All this complaining about lost privacy, personal exposure, profiling, and groping grandma ignores the root issue: keeping the flying public safe while making it impossible for terrorists to terrorize. Until someone develops a system or procedure to inspect and clear every person or every thing that goes on that plane, on a truck or aboard a ship, we are kidding ourselves.

The Israelis, while having a system that seems to work … so far … for half a dozen airports and a few thousand travelers, haven’t come up with it. The Brits, the French and the always inventive Russians don’t have the answer. And the technological solutions we’re so proud of haven’t made us a lot safer.

The plain fact is, if someone wants to wreak havoc on selected parts of the civilized world with an uncivilized vengeance and a primitive weapon, there isn’t a Hell of a lot the rest of us can do about it. Now.

Maybe someday, it’ll happen. Until then, I remain your loyal … and conflicted … scribe. And a non-flyer.

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