The ban against liquids aboard airplanes, one could say, is the equivalent of closing the barn door after the horses were caught conspiring to get in. The good news is that the conspirators were kept out. The bad news: For a period of time, so was just about everyone else.

The threat of using liquid explosives to bring down airplanes was not unknown to authorities before plotters were arrested on Aug. 10; a similar scenario had been hatched by Filipino terrorists in 1995. Likewise, officials (and novelists) had imagined that hijacked planes could be used as missiles to crash into buildings before Sept. 11, 2001.

Assuming our imaginations are as fertile as terrorists', what are we to do to protect ourselves? When I walk the streets of Manhattan, I see terror targets everywhere: every high rise, every government building, every synagogue, every large hotel. More than once, I've caught myself feeling a bit relieved to have made it safely across the George Washington Bridge -- found on a list of al Qaeda targets -- on my commute to and from New Jersey.

Our airport security regimen takes us through the procedures that would have prevented yesterday's successful attacks, but by definition, fall short of protecting us against tomorrow's.

It's not that authorities can't imagine what might happen one day, but to prevent any of myriad imagined scenarios would require millions of passengers to routinely submit to lengthy, invasive procedures that would make air travel impractical.

Last week, Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary cut to the heart of the matter. After 240 of his flights were canceled, he said, "Surely, common sense would suggest that if the safety and security of British citizens is under threat, why has the government not banned luggage, liquids and gels on the London Underground or on the Eurotunnel?" He called on the U.K. government to "return air travel in Britain to normal."

O'Leary is certainly not calling for greater security at the London Underground, nor is he merely saying the government is being unfair in singling out airlines for intense security. This airline executive is saying, in the face of an aborted plot to blow up commercial airliners, that we've gone beyond a common sense level of inconvenience for the sake of security.

O'Leary says this knowing that if 10 airplanes had been blown up over the Atlantic this summer, the consequences for air travel would have been far worse than the chaos experienced at British airports after the thwarted terrorist plot.

The cost of security vs. the cost of insufficient security can be turned over in your mind a hundred ways.

For instance, if someone were to approach you and say, "You must arrive at the airport 30 minutes earlier than you planned for your flight tomorrow. If you don't, terrorists will kill thousands of people," you would arrive early.

Unless, of course, you didn't really believe that arriving early would make a difference. Or, perhaps, you've come to believe there's a point at which we as a society will have been so changed by fear that the terrorists will have achieved a real victory, not through the deaths of individuals but via self-prescribed limitations on our own freedoms.

The rational majority will conclude that we should continue to search for the right balance among freedom, inconvenience and security. The alternative is to follow one thread of logic to its extreme, as humorist Andy Borowitz (www.borowitzreport.com) has done in his satirical article "FAA Bans People from Flights."

"Let's face it, hair gel doesn't kill people," he fake-quotes Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff as saying. "People kill people."

Borowitz ultimately imagines a happy ending to the banning of passengers from flights:

"Maybe if the airlines don't have people to worry about," an ersatz industry expert opines, "they can finally concentrate on getting our luggage to the right destination."

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