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The Fear Digest

What Are Americans Terrified of This Week?

Random gunmen, the Islamic State, the cold dead universe, our own families, and other things that we can't stop worrying about.

by Harry Cheadle
Nov 30 2014, 2:00pm

Photo via Flickr user ​Gregory W​ild-Smith

Welcome back to the Fear Digest, our weekly roundup of the top ten terrors currently percolating in the American subconscious. ​Read last week's ​column here.​

10. The empty void of the universe
​It's hard enough to get your average Black Friday shopper interested in international news, let alone interstellar news, but the headline " ​Cosmic rays render 90 percent of the universe a lifeless desert, astronomers say" surely gives even the most self-absorbed among us a second or two of pause. A pair of researchers found that radiation released by dying stars could make nearly every galaxy uninhabitable, as these gamma rays can rip apart a planet's ozone layer and leave any struggling life forms vulnerable to their sun. This could be part of the reason we haven't found any evidence of extraterrestrial life, and it makes it all the more likely that we're the only form of intelligence bumbling along in the near-endless void of space—which is bad news, since we're not doing all that great. 
Last week's rank: unranked

9. The NSA
This week the NSA's Civil Liberties and Privacy Director said in a Tumblr Q&A that the notoriously secretive intelligence agency doesn't spy on Americans, at least not on purpose, so ​chill o​ut. Phew, ​that's a​ relief!  ​
Last week's rank: 8

8. The Islamic State
The jihadist group didn't behead any Westerners this week—though the US continued ​bombing the militants—and therefore it fell a bit out of the headlines and down in these rankings. Even on a relatively quiet week, however, the extremists kept up their streak of bragging about atrocities, spreading around videos showing how they ​train child soldiers.
​Last week's rank: 4

7. The Islamic State recruiting Ferguson protesters
This is a real thing, ​according to Fox News:

Islamic jihadists worldwide have launched a barrage of recruitment messages amid the latest unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, using Twitter accounts to call on African-Americans and others in the United States to join their cause.

Some messages urge direct revolt against the US government, while others evoke the names of former black leaders—among them Malcolm X—in a bid to convince people of color that living under an Islamic caliphate is in their best interests.

Last week's rank: unranked

6. Obama's coming dictatorship
In the week after the president issued an executive order allowing millions of immigrants to avoid deportation, conservatives have calmed down and are no longer hinting darkly that the country is on a slippery slope toward ethnic cleansing and chaos. But some on the right are now suggesting that the Republicans in control of the House refuse to let Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union address in person. ​Writes Arit John in Bloomberg:

The thinking behind this proposal is that it would aptly demonstrate the level of GOP discontentment with the president, in case he doesn't already know. Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, told The New Y​ork Times Tuesday night that if he were John Boehner "I'd say to the president: 'Send us your State of the Union in writing. You're not welcome in our chamber.'"

Last week, the conservative website Breitbart​ suggested Boehner do the same "so that the elected representatives of the people do not have to listen to, or applaud, a man who is violating his oath of office and governing as a tyrant."

Maybe Obama could call for a ​new era of political civility again? 
Last week's rank: 1

5. Our own families
A supposed tyrant running the world's only superpower, a bunch of children having their heads filled with fundamentalist poison, the universe being essentially lifeless beyond our thin atmosphere—those troubles are far, far away, while our loved ones are close at hand this holiday season. And apparently, we hate and fear our loved ones more than any of those other things. At least, that's the conclusion you have to come to after reading this week's plethora of ​guides for how to ​win arguments with family members you apparently are forced to get into conversational sparring matches with every time you see them. Vox even ran a helpful ​package or articles detailing how to pick fights about everything from TV shows to Bill Cosby to the midterms. Because why tolerate a difference in opinion quietly when you can smugly recite the blogosphere's talking points?
​Last week's rank: unranked

4. America's fundamental racism 
Whether you convince your grandpa that Mexicans aren't stealing from him or not, there's still the dread-inducing fact of the whole horrible unjust system that left a black teen in Ferguson dead on the street and inspired a wave of ugly riots earlier this week. As usual, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates ​crystallized all the hopelessness:

The death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself. This is the world our collective American ancestors wanted. This is the world our collective grandparents made. And this is the country that we, the people, now preserve in our fantastic dream. What can never be said is that the Fergusons of America can be changed—but, right now, we lack the will to do it. 

Last week's rank: unranked

3. Being shot by the cops
Maybe you believe that Michael Brown's death was at least partly avoidable on his part—don't get into fights with the cops and you won't get gunned down in the street. But when you see a video of the police pulling up in a car and casually ​shooting a 12-year-old with a toy gun, you come to realize that police violence is like lightning strikes or car accidents—a phenomenon of sudden, terrible calamity that is as unpredictable as it is unstoppable. 
​Last week's rank: unranked

2. Being shot by roving gunmen
If you can avoid being on the bad end of a state-owned service weapon, you've got all those other guns and their respective bad ends to watch out for. In the last few days alone there have been reports of an ​attempted murder-suicide in Chicago, a series of ​homeless killings in Atlanta, an armed nutjob in Austin who got ​killed after firing at buildings, and a ​double ho​micide in San Diego—and those were just news stories I came across without really looking; there are undoubtedly a lot more out there. It's a cliche to rant about gun violence in America, but it's also an undisputed fact that a lot of people get shot and killed for absolutely no reason because some idiot reached for his revolver.
Last week's rank: unranked

1. Not having a gun
The proper way to deal with all these bullets flying through the air, Americans have decided, is to make sure that you're packing heat yourself. It's a scary world out there, and having a death-dealing barrel of your own nestled at your hip is the way to wipe away the fear—or at least, that's what ​over 144,000 people figured on Black Friday when they decided to buy guns at discount prices. We shrug at the deadly cops and amateur psychos roaming the landscape armed to the teeth, but we do want to make sure that when we're in that inevitable gun battle we don't die alone. And isn't that what the holidays are all about?
Last week's rank: unranked

Follow Harry Cheadle on ​Twitter.