The United States of America is by many measures the most powerful and wealthy empire to ever squat on the face of the Earth. Ordinary middle-class Americans have access to luxuries that would have been ludicrous fantasies for much of human history: We can buy whatever food we like at supermarkets, devices the size of our pockets allow us to access nearly every bit of information we can conceive of, and our bodily waste is spirited away to treatment facilities by a series of pipes. Our country—which has had a more or less stable political system for nearly 250 years—is bordered on two sides by allies and on the other two sides by vast oceans, making it essentially impossible to invade us, and our military is so powerful that no one is likely to try anyway. We're so safe in America that one of our biggest day-to-day concerns is that we'll eat too much delicious food and get unhealthily fat.
And yet Americans are terrified pretty much all the time. Sometimes we're worried about something in particular, but most of the time it's just a sort of free-floating anxiety that the country as a whole is a few flappings of butterfly wings away from being decimated by a horrible disease, or turned into an Eastern European-esque police state, or consumed by riots and flames.
Fear Digest is a new column that will attempt to keep track of all this. Each week I'll be doing a ranking of the top ten terrors—either credible or fueled by fearmongering—percolating in the American subconscious as measured by whatever the media and politicians are yelling about the most. So here we go:
Remember when people were so worried about this disease that the governors of New York and New Jersey got together to basically place anyone brave enough to fight Ebola in West Africa under house arrest upon their return to the US? Yeah, me neither. Though Ebola continues to ravage Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone—and though a doctor died of the virus in Nebraska this week—there were far fewer headlines about the "Ebola panic" and thus, less Ebola panic. Funny how that works.
The ride-sharing company that has convinced people it could change the world and is worth $30 billion because it makes it easy for people with smartphones to get cabs attracted a lot of bad publicity this week. First an executive suggested something like, "Hey maybe we should dig up dirt on journalists we don't like? LOL," at a dinner he thought was off the record (Buzzfeed's Ben Smith thought differently). Then it came out that Uber can track the location of its cars through something nicknamed "God Mode," and that it was sometimes cavalier in using this feature. Concerns about privacy, in combination with all the other sexist and ugly behavior the company has been accused of, was enough for some people to think about deleting the app. If the thought of some tech bro monitoring your cab ride for his own douchey purposes doesn't exactly inspire dread, it definitely doesn't make you feel great about the changes Uber is bringing to the world.
8. The NSA
Speaking of people who might be watching you, the federal government continues to collect massive amounts of data on its citizens and make decisions about surveillance via secret courts. This is low on this week's list because we've more or less accepted life in the panopticon, but it's worth noting that a reform-minded bill called the USA Freedom Act failed in the Senate this week, amid a bunch of screeching about 9/11 and the Islamic State. The good news is that it might not have helped all that much anyway. Democracy in action!
There are SantaCon events all over the world where people dressed as Santa gather to drink and—well, they just sort of gather and drink—but the most notorious is probably New York City's. It's an annual shitshow of bridge-and-tunnel bros and broesses in Santa hats getting full-on hammered by early afternoon, then roaming the city's streets and bars while shouting, puking, crying, and making out and fighting with one another. It's fun for the drunken Santas but a nightmare for everyone else. Last year the cops cracked down on the bacchanalia in Manhattan, so the organizers were going to head to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this year—except those bars don't want to deal with the messy revelry, as they have made clear.
6. "Text Neck"
Hey, remember how people used to be worried that cell phones cause brain cancer? Well, don't worry about it—worry instead that the strain of constantly looking down at your mobile device is going to permanently bend your spine.
5. Chinese hackers
On Thursday Admiral Michael Rogers, the head of the NSA and US Cyber Command, stopped by a Congressional panel to inform them that America's power grid is vulnerable to attack from China and "probably one or two other" countries who might want to shut the US down. According to what one expert told Fox News, "There is a 'huge risk' that America's own power utilities could be turned into a weapon used against US citizens and controlled from another land." Of course, anyone who saw the fourth Die Hard already knew all that.
4. The Islamic State
The fundamentalist Islamic group continued its run of almost cartoonish evil this week, as militants reportedly beheaded Army Ranger–turned–aid worker Peter Kassig, then released a propaganda video of another hostage, John Cantlie, telling the US and the UK that their military operations to rescue their captured citizens were foolish and that they should just pay ransoms for them.
The Islamic State remains terrifying, but this week Americans' top anxieties remained close to home. A grand jury still hasn't decided whether to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, cop who shot and killed teenager Michael Brown and sparked a chain of massive protests and a national shouting match about race and policing. An indictment—or lack thereof—is expected soon, and Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday in preparation for the violence that might follow the grand jury's decision. Meanwhile, business owners in Ferguson who anticipate looting and riots have moved their guns and gold to more secure locations, and a group of enraged protesters called for Wilson's death on Thursday.
2. The Cold
Remember when we used to have "winter"? Those quaint days are long gone—we now have to contend with a yearly "polar vortex," a fun tabloid term for when it gets really, really cold all over the place. Western New York is probably the worst-hit region, with ten people dying after a half-dozen feet of snow got dumped on the area. The band Interpol was trapped on their bus for nearly 50 hours, major highways were closed, and the NFL even moved a football game from Buffalo to Detroit—and the NFL doesn't delay games unless a major natural disaster or 9/11 happens, so you know this is serious.
— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul)November 20, 2014
1. Obama's Coming Dictatorship
On Thursday evening, Barack Obama announced that he was issuing an executive order that would allow nearly 5 million immigrants who had come to the US illegally to stay under certain conditions. Congress has failed for years to pass any bills to reform a terrible immigration system, Obama and his supporters say, so the president needed to take unilateral action to deal with the problem. The anti-Obama crowd naturally responded to the move by critiquing the substance of the president's policies, by which I mean, "Ha, ha. No, they just went off the rails as usual." The Indianapolis Star ran an editorial cartoon of brown people invading a white family's Thanksgiving, Rush Limbaugh started talking about how the "regime wants to fly immigrant children here for free," and Republicans all over the country said the executive order meant that Obama was one step closer to turning into a dictator. Senator Rand Paul tweeted the above joke about how we are about to become a monarchy, Senator Tom Coburn said that we could see "anarchy" and "violence" in an interview with USA Today, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach darkly hinted on a radio show that we were on a slippery slope to "ethnic cleansing" or something—"Things are strange and they're happening" was how he put it.
You can dismiss this sort of hyperbolic discourse as the deluded byproduct of a media bubble that encourages politicians (especially those on the right) to say the most extreme things they can think of to galvanize their bases—but what if they're correct? That would mean the first installment of this column would also be the last, for one thing, since we'd all be dead or fleeing gangs of bandits in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. See you there!
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.