Americans’ greatest fears are actually the least of their worries.
I like to think that the people I know are of above-average intelligence. Most of them, anyway. (I do know lots of people in Washington.) Yet were you to ask them to list their biggest fears, they would offer up answers similar to those enumerated in public polls and reports on the subject. One such study, conducted by Chapman University in 2014, ranked people’s biggest phobias in order: public speaking, heights, bugs, sharks and other animals, drowning, blood/needles, small spaces, flying, strangers, zombies, darkness, clowns, and ghosts.
That’s right. Despite the fragility of life on this planet and the huge number of things that could snuff us out in the blink of an eye, what people worry most about are things that, for the most part, are unlikely to ever harm them. Take public speaking, for example. Far fewer people die of public speaking than should: I don’t wish ill to most public speakers — I, myself, have been guilty of it from time to time — but the world would be a better place if verbosity or banality were fatal conditions.
Think about it. Are you more afraid of flying on an airplane, or of eating a cheeseburger? Planes are actually safe; it’s the cheeseburger that will kill you. In fact, obesity, an epidemic in America, is directly related to heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in this country. That is to say, if people were rational, they might be more afraid of large portions than things that don’t actually exist, such as zombies and ghosts.
This concept might be applied to America’s leaders. According to PolitiFact, between 2004 and 2014, terrorists killed 303 Americans worldwide, while guns killed more than 320,000 Americans. In other words, the threat posed by guns — as President Barack Obama has pointed out — is far greater than that posed by terrorists. As it turns out, 1,000 times greater. Yet while leaders insist on spending hundreds of billions in order to contain a perceived terror threat, they are incapable of mustering support in Congress for even the most anodyne and limited gun-control measures.
Those above-average friends of mine? They cancel overseas trips for fear of terror attacks, which happen very seldom, but think nothing of visiting a place like Texas, where, as of August, it is legal for people to carry loaded guns on college campuses.
Do I believe it is reasonable to think we will eradicate irrational fears anytime soon? No. Does it really matter whether people fear zombies? Not at all. Frankly, it is kind of amusing to think of people cowering in fear of the brain-eating undead, while they are watching these zombies on the one thing that actually is eating their brains — the television.
That said, the problem becomes more serious when U.S. public officials (or would-be leaders) suggest that illusory or secondary threats deserve more of the nation’s attention and resources than real ones. This is a concern for several reasons. First, simply by identifying a nation or an entity as a threat, U.S. leaders put the nation and its citizens in opposition to those involved. That’s a problem, especially when those involved are actually our friends, such as Mexico (hat tip to Trump) or vital partners, such as China (curtsy to Trump). Second, by prioritizing minor threats, like terrorism, we divert vital bandwidth from bigger dangers, like gun control, school security, global warming, and the list goes on.
This bandwidth issue doesn’t only apply to the U.S. Congress, but to most national governments, none of which seem able to focus on more than one threat at a time. Rest assured: Prioritizing terrorism over the shifting strategic balance of the planet, and the potential long-term challenges associated with climate change, will not come without perverse consequences.
This phenomenon in America — focusing fears on recent events, even if quite limited in impact, rather than preparing for impending doom, with devastating consequences — is particularly pernicious, especially considering all the things that we are not acknowledging. For starters, these include the collapse of American competitiveness, social unrest due to inequality, and even the apparent emergence of bacteria that are resistant to last-resort antibiotics. The latter could cause a public health catastrophe that would turn the Islamic State into yesterday’s news in a heartbeat.
While this may seem far-fetched in the current environment — please humor me and set aside your cynicism — it might be argued that the special responsibility of U.S. leaders is to show more wisdom and be more rational than the American public at large. (In fact, I would go further. If you want a list of things to really fear, I would put cynicism about public officials and institutions high atop it.) These leaders may be flawed, but we need them to help set priorities in ways that a public, which is often driven by headlines and irrational impulses, will not.
It is obvious that officials would never establish, say, a Department of Defense Against Public Speaking and Clowns. But it should be equally obvious that U.S. leaders be required to identify, anticipate, and address real threats — and, standing up to public pressure, say: “Gun violence is killing this nation’s people. The government will confront this threat with the same zeal and systemic commitment that it has addressed the much smaller threat posed by terror groups.”
American leaders are surely not there yet, but the American public must get them there. Step one is to avoid electing candidates who seek to win support by fear-mongering. (Again: See Trump.) They are, in fact, the clowns we really must dread.
Or perhaps that is unfair. Because if we allow leaders (or would-be leaders) to play us for fools — to stir up fears of illusory or overstated bogeymen, to serve their ambitions or those of the special interests they represent as demagogues have since time immemorial — then we will be forced to admit that we, ourselves, are the scariest clowns of all.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August issue of FP magazine.
Illustration by Matthew Hollister