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The Paranoid Style of America in a Pandemic

On canceled weddings, Tom Clancy’s clairvoyance, and combat veterans on high alert

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Last week, as I waited in the social-distance line outside a medical pot store on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I overheard two men in front of me talking. Both, like me, were white and in their mid-thirties. One, a former Marine wearing well-worn issue boots, said his rifle magazines were topped off and he had plenty of food; he hoped it was time for “the boogaloo.” The other man nodded; he hoped the civil war was going down soon, too, otherwise he’d need to get back to work. 

There’s a virus in our midst, but something else hangs in the air. 

In a parallel dimension with no Covid-19 fatalities, I’m just back from a honeymoon with my new wife, Toni. We were supposed to get married and have a party with 100 friends and relatives on March 21 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Toni’s smarter than me. She figured out first that we needed to postpone the whole thing; I wanted to sleep on it. It sunk in for me with a March 12 text message from a sister of my groomsman, Monty, who calls to shoot the shit a couple times a day but refuses to send or receive text messages. “Daanzho,” she wrote, a Jicarilla Apache greeting meaning “It is good”—but her message wasn’t. “Bad news. Can’t travel.” Guidance had come down from the Jicarilla Apache Nation president, Darrell Paiz. “I’m sorry. Can’t attend your wedding.”

In the early 1900s, a tuberculosis epidemic spread through the Apache community in Dulce, New Mexico. By 1918, when the flu epidemic hit, only 596 members of the Jicarilla Nation remained. Monty’s grandfather had been a soldier during World War I, living through the Spanish flu, telling the stories to his grandson. Memories of contagion’s ravages—and the knowledge that the American government will lie and break promises—remain with the Nation’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To ensure no chances of bringing the coronavirus back to the reservation in Dulce, my Apache friends were staying put.

Our planned officiant, Tim, was an old friend of mine I’d bonded with years ago in California, when he was involved in the Occupy movement in Oakland, my postwar traumatic stress was peaking, and the world seemed especially hostile. Before we decided to postpone, he’d developed his own contingency plans. Rather than buy him a plane ticket, I would rent him a car, and he would drive in from his home in the Bay Area, with an overnight stay in Kingman, Arizona. Going over these plans, I voiced concerns about his physical safety: Given the White House’s “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” rhetoric and increased attacks on Chinese Americans in the Bay, this might not be the best time to be a Chinese American lawyer and activist seeking a room for the night in Kingman, the town that incubated Tim McVeigh

“Don’t worry,” Tim told me, “I have my concealed carry permit.” He said he’d noticed a new demographic looking at Glocks and Kimbers in his local gun store: worried Chinese grandmothers. The air of quarantine-era America was putting out an Occupy-like vibe to me. 

Postponed wedding blues aside, we—Toni, my stepdaughter, and our two dogs, Bella and Bear—can’t complain, here at home in Arkansas. I get up late, read the news, note the medical studies, watch the briefings, but I’m nowhere near the front lines of this war on germs. I’m not a Walmart cashier in Washington, a phlebotomist at a New York City hospital, or an Army nurse in Fort Lewis. I’m OK, even if I haven’t hugged my mother, who lives 15 minutes from me, in two weeks. I do worry about my sister, who is delivering school lunches to kids in her school district. I want to thank her for her service.   

The way this country looks on TV in this pandemic feels artificial, unreal—the way the world looks in an eclipse’s light during the final totality. Spring is here, tulips are up, and it feels wrong to write breezily how bummed I am that our matrimonial party wasn’t possible. Elsewhere, people are struggling for breath, losing loved ones, out of jobs, worried about finding steady shelter, affording health care coverage, filling cupboards, and paying bills.

Some of my ease probably stems from how much this world reminds me of my soldiering days, how making a grocery run now feels like going outside the wire. I revert to the training and mindset that kept me alive for 16 months of infantry patrols in the sticks of eastern Afghanistan. I am wary of everyone, even more than normal, and so maintaining a safe social distance with a broad smile comes almost naturally to me. I calculate distances to places of cover and concealment. As I push my shopping cart, I think of how I can use it as an improvised standoff weapon. I get text messages every day from old buddies, many of them ex-government, with multiple variations on one basic theme: “Shit’s crazy! You have a weapon for home defense, right?”

Hearing that question makes me think of military-thriller-novelist Tom Clancy’s weird New York Times interview from 1999, when fears abounded that a Y2K bug in twentieth-century computers would reset civilization and roil humanity. “If someone breaks into my house,” Clancy told Jeffrey Goldberg, “it’s going to be a bad career move.” That was the year Clancy married Colin Powell’s second cousin and published his book Rainbow Six in paperback. Rainbow Six is about a NATO-based commando outfit—think Seal Team 6 but with Germans, Brits, and Italians—that must stop a shadowy group of wealthy environmental terrorists, assisted by ex-KGB and FBI types, from releasing a deadly virus with an airborne vector at the 2000 Olympic Games. (Spoiler: The terrorists succeed, with help from the Russians.)  

Clancy was always ahead of his time. He’d used a virus as a plot device before, in 1996’s Executive Orders—which itself was the sequel to a novel, written almost a decade before 9/11, that ended with a rogue commercial air pilot using his 747 as a suicide bomb to destroy the U.S. Capitol. Executive Orders opens with the Capitol building still on fire, the attack having wiped out most of the U.S. government and left Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, to be sworn in as president. Ryan subsequently confronts a strain of weaponized Ebola released in the United States by 20 Iranian intelligence operatives who misted germs on convention attendees in Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida. Ryan helps squash the outbreak by instituting martial law and quarantine zones, then assassinates the Iranian ayatollah who initiated the attack, explaining in a televised speech that the U.S. would kill leaders of foreign nations who sponsor terrorist attacks on American citizens. 

That was not just a plot device for Clancy: He also advocated the killing of foreign leaders as a counterterror strategy during a 1996 lecture to the officers at the military’s Air University in Maxwell, Alabama. President Trump’s wafer-thin justification for the January assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was straight out of the Clancy playbook. What else is 2020 going to crib from Tom Clancy, I wonder? 

Clearly, reading is not a refuge for me, so I’ve tried playing video games to occupy the time and push the weirdness out of my head, but that boomerangs on you. Puppeteering Spider-Man around New York City as he tries to stop a mad scientist from releasing a deadly designer virus called Devil’s Breath wasn’t a mental vacation. Neither was scrounging for supplies and fighting mutated Mad Max–style cultists swarming postapocalyptic Montana in Far Cry: New Dawn. Another nonstarter was Clancy’s The Division 2, in which deep-cover sleeper agents of the U.S. “Strategic Homeland Division” are activated to ensure continuity of government in Washington after a “Green Poison” smallpox epidemic. The gameplay involves fighting gangs; pandemic survivors out for revenge; and neofascists in stunningly rendered ruins of a near-future White House, Capitol, and National Mall. It’s an unsettling fiction: Those situations can’t happen here, until they do. 

Part of the difficulty in writing about this moment is knowing the membrane between sanity and insanity is thin, and the pressure is building in America. In the past week, Howard Hughes’s fabled germophobia became an aspirational goal; Bob Dylan released a 17-minute song about the Kennedy assassination; and Goldman Sachs predicted that the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, would shrink by 34 percent, a figure so immense it’s hard to conceive.

I’ve always fancied myself a connoisseur of what Freud called “the uncanny,” but this is too weird for me. It’s a dream scenario for covert-action plans: a mighty nation, bifurcated between its urban coasts and its rural center, strung this tight. With, say, $50 million and 25 smart, motivated people divided into five-person mobile training teams, access to an industrial printing press, secure communications, and plenty of spray-paint, I reckon it’d take the kids two months to kick off a 2011-style American Spring. Today, on my walk with the dogs through the ghost town of central Fayetteville, I saw slick posters with slabby white-on-black text reading “Democrats Did It” and “Russians Did It” next to flyers for a rent strike. Maybe it wouldn’t even take two months.       

I can’t figure out what to do, so I’m packing a bug-out bag—where does one bug out to, from Arkansas, I wonder?—and planting the garden. Occasionally, I’ll check in on the latest internet conspiracy theories and scrutinize photos of National Guard vehicles moving through New York City, looking for anything amiss or unsettling. This week, I followed the online track of USNS Comfort, the Navy’s medical ship. At Fort Monroe—my last Army duty station, a now-decommissioned coastal artillery base—I used to see the Comfort coming in and out of Norfolk with my own eyes. Now, as it transits from Virginia to New York, I watched it from afar.

As it passed the Navy SEALs on Dam Neck, the soldiers on Fort Story, and the clinic where I used to go for PTS treatment, the ship performed a large loop in the water before returning to its outbound course. A Navy buddy tells me that’s normal, but the ship’s looped path looked to me like it spelled out the letter Q. You can’t see a virus with your eyes, but signs that America has a fever are everywhere.