Why does everyone hate the TSA?

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By Christopher Elliott

The story had a familiar ring to it. It involved a group of soldiers returning home from Afghanistan. They were carrying weapons, including rifles, pistols and at least one M-240B machine gun.

And then they got to the TSA screening area in Indianapolis, where an overzealous agent began confiscating the soldiers’ contraband, according to the platoon leader.

One soldier lost a multi-tool.

“Kind of ridiculous,” he wrote, “but it gets better.”

They are going to confiscate his nail clippers

“A few minutes later, a guy empties his pockets and has a pair of nail clippers. Nail clippers. TSA informs the soldier that they’re going to confiscate his nail clippers,” he added.

I didn’t have to go any further to know what would come after the account, which was forwarded to me by several readers last week and was reportedly making the rounds on Facebook.

The outrage. The TSA-bashing. The, “Can someone please tell me what the hell happened to our country while we were gone?”

There’s just one teensy problem: None of it is true.

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And I’m not taking the TSA’s word for it, even though it posted an odd rebuttal late last week. The independent website Factcheck.org looked into it and concluded the incident did not happen.

Boy in wheelchair is swabbed for explosives

Here’s an incident that did happen, though. This is an unidentified three-year-old on his way to Orlando with his family. If you don’t want to watch the entire clip, I’ll give you a Readers Digest version: The boy, sitting in a wheelchair, is subjected to a lengthy pat-down and is swabbed for explosives.

This clip got nearly 2 million views and tens of thousands of comments, all expressing fury that the TSA would do this to a toddler.

Just one thing: The incident didn’t happen earlier this week as the timestamp suggests; it occured about two years ago, well before the TSA changed the way it screens kids.

But that little fact didn’t stop the blogosphere and a few mainstream media outlets from pouncing on the agency assigned to protect us from flying jihadists.

Oh, who am I kidding? I probably would have done the same thing in the heat of the moment.

But why?

That’s a question I’ve pondered for a while. Maybe you have, too.

I mean, here’s an absurd story about fully-armed soldiers having their nailclippers confiscated. And people were forwarding it to me, even though it would have taken half a second to confirm that the story was bogus. They wanted it to be true.

Likewise, the video clip would have been far more troubling if it had been taken in March 2012, which we were led to believe it was. But it wasn’t. The TSA says it doesn’t do that kind of thing any more. But we want to think it does.

So what’s going on here?

It might help to pull back a little and look at airport security elsewhere. I can’t think of a single developed nation where airport security has such a terrible reputation. Even Israel, where airport security is thought to be airtight, doesn’t love to hate its screeners quite like we do here in the States. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

Before 9/11, American airport screeners had a reputation for being poorly-educated and incompetent, but otherwise harmless. Now they have a reputation for being poorly-educated and incompetent, but they wear badges and call themselves “officers” and they aren’t so harmless anymore.

The TSA’s supporters may say the agency has prevented another 9/11-style attack, but that’s impossible to prove. They’ve been in charge of airport security for the last decade. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve protected us from anything or prevented anything.

In their efforts to do so, however, they’ve turned public sentiment against them. The American public didn’t hesitate to embrace two bogus events, and debunking them changed nothing. We still hate the TSA.

This is the TSA’s true problem — not terrorists, not budget cuts, but the fact that the American public wishes it would just disappear. And it isn’t something easily fixable with a PR campaign or another blogger with a corny sense of humor (sorry, Bob). American air travelers want deeds, not words. The TSA has so many law suits against it already.

We want the TSA to stop forcing us to choose between a potentially harmful full-body scan and an invasive pat-down. We want the agency to stop its unnecessary expansion that costs us billions of dollars a year. And we want it to start telling us the truth.

Can things get any worse for the TSA?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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