Take cover, she has a purse!

Recognize this?  

To a fashionista it’s a “knuckle-clasp clutch.” To the TSA it’s a potential weapon.

I got a lesson in handbags on Friday evening from an out-of-town visitor who had flown into Philadelphia that morning. The traveler relayed her story to me at a local watering hole not far from the federal building where her passport application was being processed. She had had quite a day.

Well dressed, articulate, and a resident of a decidedly upscale neighborhood north of Pittsburgh, she had discovered the night before that her passport had expired, which was a problem since her family was to leave for a Caribbean vacation the next day. She explained that she rearranged her flight to include a stop in Philly, the closest city where she could get rush processing on a new one.

Anyone who has had to make last-minute travel plans can imagine the anxiety: a pre-planned vacation in jeopardy, necessitating a rush to the local print shop for new photos just before closing time on Thursday evening; the search for a place to get an expedited passport (through a private service, for an additional fee); and the nightmare of desperately trying to find new flights for the next morning (only one seat available, in First Class), as well as a hotel for the night since the flight didn’t leave until Saturday morning. No wonder she needed a drink.

Having overcome several obstacles to save her vacation, she was feeling pretty good when she arrived at the airport in Pittsburgh with her family on Friday morning. They were headed off on holiday, and she would join them after a quick stop in Philadelphia. She had sent her luggage ahead with her husband and was traveling with just a small carry-on, with the purse inside. A sharp-eyed screener saw the purse on the x-ray, the bag was opened, and the challenges began:

“What’s this?!

“Uh, it’s a purse.”

“It could be used as a weapon!”

“I mostly use it to carry lipstick.”

Okay, I can’t be sure of the exact dialogue, and quite rightly anyone who makes last-minute changes to an international flight should probably trigger some additional scrutiny. But the TSA didn’t notice that. They zeroed in on her purse.

Now, institutional idiocy is nothing new. From the DMV to the PTA, a three-letter acronym often seems synonymous with dumb rules enforced by petty bureaucrats. What makes the TSA unique is how the discussion ended. Taking a final potshot, the female screener, in TSA blue with a shiny silver badge, told the traveler, “You’re lucky we aren’t involving the police.”

That’ll get your attention.

I wasn’t able to inspect the offending clutch, as the traveler had decided to mail it home to herself from the Pittsburgh airport (she was told she could also return it to her car or simply leave it at the checkpoint if she liked). But I think that a purse is to brass knuckles as a water pistol is to a handgun: they may look similar, but they are made of entirely different materials, for entirely different purposes. And I can’t imagine either one being the first choice of a determined hijacker, even if he had been disguised as an affluent traveler from an upscale Pittsburgh neighborhood who had decided to call attention to himself by changing his flight at the last minute.

Nor was I there to see the incident in person. But everything this traveler told me was entirely credible and consistent with my own TSA experiences. An internal investigation would almost certainly show that, contrary to her assertions, she was treated with the utmost respect by the TSA.

But I believe her.

I believe she was harassed over her handbag. The TSA seems to have a phobia about purses. A pregnant teenage girl was hassled over a purse with an image of a gun on it in December. That incident made national news. This one didn’t, because the woman didn’t want to make it, quite literally, a federal case. There had been enough drama for one trip already.

Nevertheless, when the TSA tells you that most Americans are happy with their “service” because complaints are down, that doesn’t mean that incidents of institutional ignorance have decreased or that Americans aren’t being harassed.

“You’re lucky we aren’t involving the police.”

Under threat of DYWTFT (“Do you want to fly today?”), we abandon the pocket knives and sewing scissors we forgot were in our possession, or we amp up the travel stress a little more by making a mad dash to the car or airport post office (if there is one) and back again, all to satisfy the whim of a TSA employee with an overactive imagination. Yes, I guess she could have punched someone with the faux-brass knuckles on a knuckle purse, but she could have just as well snapped off the handle of a rolling bag and beat someone with it. Or tied up a roll of quarters at the end of a scarf to make a sling. Or cracked the end off a beer bottle from a concourse bar. Or she could have run over someone with a drink cart. Or simply strangled her seat-mate with her shoelaces.

The TSA will never be able to stop all the possible improvised weapons, because they’re, uh, improvised. And it’s not necessary to do so because most couldn’t bring down an airplane anyway. What TSA can do is harass the traveling public for the most trivial of reasons. And they seem to relish doing so.

It won’t be reported, because most of us just want to get where we’re going, but at this moment in an airport somewhere in America, a poorly trained employee of an out -of-control federal agency is probably telling an innocent traveler, “You’re lucky we aren’t involving the police.”

Enjoy your vacation.

(Photo: Neiman Marcus)