Afterthoughts: To Hell in a Handbag

Or, when a purse is not just a purse.

Photo by Linny Morris

I recently went to the premiere of PBS’s miniseries, Carrier, which was held at the USS Arizona Memorial. “You might want to only bring a small purse,” my husband said vaguely. “There was something in the invite about purses …”

The last time I went to the memorial was, I think, around 2002, and, at that time, no purses were allowed on the premises. But that was in the chilly shadow of 9/11; you couldn’t get a plastic knife at the airport, and people still paid attention to the color of the National Threat Advisory scale. I recall the hue of the day was orange, or “High Risk of Terrorist Attacks,” when I last visited the Arizona.

By now, I’m a little savvier. I’ve noticed the threat scale never, ever dips to the calmer green level, or “Low Risk of Attack.” Nor does it rest on blue, or “Guarded.” No, the Office of Homeland Security likes to keep things amped up: Severe! High! Elevated!

As we pulled into the parking lot at the memorial, I was amused to see signs reading NO PURSES. You’re going to separate a lady from her handbag, an item of attire so important it’s practically an appendage?

Illustration by Jing Jing Tsong

“That can’t be right,” we thought. Yet at the entrance, I saw man after man dutifully toting his lady friend’s handbag back to the car. Brett and I joked that we’d say to the guard on duty, “Sir, that’s not a purse! It’s a clutch, sir!” No dice. My purse returned solo to the car. 

Seven years after 9/11, purses are still deemed too unpredictable, too sinister to bring in to the USS Arizona Memorial. Also banished: Fanny packs (now those are sinister), backpacks, camera bags, diaper bags, luggage and/or other items that offer concealment. That last one’s pretty vague. Do they mean raincoats? Mardi Gras masks? Hide-a-key fake garden boulders? But don’t worry, tourists, you can stash your suspicious items at a storage facility, for a nominal fee.

I’d like to call for the U.S. National Park Service, which runs the USS Arizona Memorial to lift the ban on purses. First of all, it’s a national park—you can bring your handbag to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Booker T. Washington National Monument. Second, practicality. You have 1 million or so guests coming to the Arizona each year, people who want to pay their respects, people who are on vacation, people who are interested in American history. Half of these visitors are women and lack pockets, because a lot of women’s clothing doesn’t HAVE pockets—guys, that’s why we need a handbag. We’re usually carrying your oversize crap too, like that sunglasses case. We have the tissues when you sneeze; we whip out the Cheerios when Junior starts screaming.

Most importantly, if public—or nearby military—safety is truly the concern, well, address it. Rather than inconveniencing half a million visitors, hire some guards to probe the purses with sticks and strobe their flashlights around in the mysterious depths of a woman’s handbag. Put the purses through a metal detector, jet-puff them with air, swab them with cotton, sic a frenzied beagle upon them. But don’t fear a silly little purse.

The no-purses commandment is a perfect example of how restrictive policies—even well-meaning ones—are hard to roll back once they are put in place.

It’s troubling when mundane, normal, private objects and activities are permanently recast as scary threats. For how long can we not bring a purse? For how long will they make us take off our shoes at the airport? When does the embargo on shampoo end? 2030? 2040? When does this stop?

Level Orange is our new normal—that’s the threat. Not fanny packs. Not diaper bags. We give up a little freedom here, and a little freedom there, all the while being told it’s for our own good.

And then it’s gone, and handbags will be the least of our problems.