If you're not paranoid, you're crazy

Inside the show, a clean-cut salesman stood beside a woman who gazed at him with an expression that bordered on idolatry. He showed us a line of shotgun ammunition designed to shred a human target with scores of tiny, multisided blades. Another shell contained a bunched-up wire precisely weighted at both ends such that it would uncoil and stretch out when fired, sawing its target into pieces. The man also sold “bug out” bags stocked with handsaws, fuel pellets, first-aid kits, and other equipment that might prove helpful should relations between the watchers and the watched catastrophically deteriorate. The key, the man said, would be surviving those first few days after the ATMs stopped working and the grocery stores were looted bare.

The couple didn’t push their goods on us, only their outlook. When they learned we were from Montana, they asked whether we’d seen the FEMA camps where, supposedly, thousands of foreign troops were stationed in anticipation of martial law. The salesman was concerned that these troops would “take our women,” and he recommended a podcast—The Common Sense Show, hosted by someone named Dave Hodges—that would prepare us for the coming siege. The man’s eyes slid sideways as he spoke, as though on alert for lurking secret agents. Later, I learned that his worry was not entirely unfounded. In January of this year, the ACLU unearthed an e‑mail describing a federal plan to scan the license plates of vehicles parked outside gun shows. The plan was never acted on, apparently, but reading about it caused me some chagrin; I’d thought the jumpy salesman had completely flipped his wig.

The gun show was not about weaponry, primarily, but about autonomy—construed in this case as the right to stand one’s ground against an arrogant, intrusive new order whose instruments of suppression and control I’d seen for myself the night before. There seemed to be no rational response to the feelings of powerlessness stirred by the cybernetic panopticon; the choice was either to ignore it or go crazy, at least to some degree. With its coolly planar architecture, the data center projected a stern indifference to the qualms that its presence inevitably raised. It practically dared one to take up arms against it, a Goliath that roused the instinct to grab a slingshot. The assault rifles and grenade launchers (I handled one, I hope for the last time) for sale were props in a drama of imagined resistance in which individuals would rise up to defend themselves. The irony was that preparing for such a fight in the only way these people knew how—by plotting their countermoves and hoarding ammo—played into the very security concerns that the overlords use to justify their snooping. The would-be combatants in this epic conflict were more closely linked, perhaps, than they appreciated.