Depending on armed marshals aboard airplanes might be an alternative to arming pilots -- if there were any realistic prospect of putting marshals on even half the vast numbers of planes that are flying every day. But hypothetical marshals are no substitute for real pilots with real guns.
Depending on stronger cockpit doors might be another alternative -- if all these doors on vast numbers of airliners could be strengthened faster than pilots can get guns. But hypothetical doors are no more protection than hypothetical marshals. Tests have also repeatedly shown that the effectiveness of security screening at our airports is also largely hypothetical.
Part of the reason for the knee-jerk reaction to firearms may be that we now have a whole generation of people -- especially in politics and among opinion-makers in the media -- who have never served in the armed forces and have no experience with guns. Fear from ignorance is understandable. But that it should be presumptuous ignorance is not.
Are there any possible dangers to arming pilots? Of course! There are dangers to your holding this newspaper, which might catch fire and set off a conflagration around you. Nothing on the face of this earth is 100 percent safe. We already know that flying on a plane with no one on board who is armed to resist terrorists is not safe.
The only meaningful question is which danger is greater. The swiftness with which the idea of arming pilots was dismissed suggests no serious interest in weighing one danger against another. It may be understandable that the Bush administration does not want to buck the media on this emotional issue in an election year. But will the widows and orphans of those who lose their lives, because there was no armed person on board to thwart terrorists, be understanding?