Americans are inundated with media coverage and politicians warning them of dire threats: Ebola, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the war on Christmas.
The truth, though, is that the most-hyped threats are often not actually that threatening to Americans, while larger dangers go mostly ignored. That should tell you something about how our political system and media can distort threats, leading Americans to overreact to minor dangers while ignoring the big, challenging, divisive problems — like climate change — that we should actually be worried about.
Obsessing about possible threats is something of a beloved national past-time here in America, which is objectively one of the safest places on Earth, so we want to help you do it right. Here, then, is a highly un-scientific and incomplete ranking of threats to the United States — sorted by the current danger to Americans, worst-case danger to Americans, and how freaked out you should be.
Threat to Americans: If you are an American in West Africa in close proximity with Ebola victims, the threat is moderate. If you are an American health worker in the US assisting an Ebola victim or someone who frequently comes into physical contact with one, the threat of infection is minor if you use proper protective equipment. Otherwise, the threat is pretty close to zero.
Worst-case scenario: The outbreak could get much worse in West Africa, but even in that scenario the disease will remain unlikely to affect many Americans outside of the region.
How freaked out should you be: If you have loved ones in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea, it is not unreasonable to urge them to take all possible precautions. Otherwise, you would do better to worry about the other items on this list.
8) Your own furniture
Threat to Americans: According to a report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, just under 30 Americans are killed every year by "tip-over," which is when "televisions, furniture, and appliances" fall onto their owners. The report also found that over 40,000 Americans receive "emergency department-treated injuries" from tip-over every year.
Worst-case scenario: This is America. We can always find ways to make a bigger, heavier, deadlier TV.
How freaked out should you be: Council on Foreign Relations scholar Micah Zenko found that tip-over kills about as many Americans per year as terrorism does, and injures many more. In theory, then, you should be just as freaked out by tip-over as you are by terrorism. Based on the fatality rate, you should be much more freaked out about tip-over than you are about Ebola.
Threat to Americans: Presently, the threat to Americans outside of Iraq and Syria is extremely low, as ISIS has no demonstrated intent or capability to launch such an attack. And since 2001, the US has gotten much, much better at preventing terror plots.
Worst-case scenario: ISIS does control a giant stretch of territory, boast thousands of fighters (some with Western passports), earn lots of oil revenue, and field heavy US-made weapons seized from the Iraqi army. Oh, and it now has access to rotting but still-deadly chemical weapons. They could decide to use those resources to try to attack the US, or could allow other terrorists to use their territory as a safe haven.
How freaked out should you be: Not very. If ISIS decides to turn its attention to attacking the US, the prospect it might succeed is real, but remote. And even if it did pull off a successful attack, it would almost certainly kill only a small fraction of the number of Americans that guns and cars are virtually certain to kill every single year.
6) The flu
Threat to Americans: The flu kills thousands of Americans every year, many times more people than Ebola. The elderly and infirm are especially at risk.
Worse-case scenario: An especially bad outbreak in 2004 killed 48,000 Americans.
How freaked out should you be: If you're elderly, very young, or immunosuppressed, you should get a flu shot or nasal spray immediately. (Even if you're not, you should still get off your lazy butt and get a flu shot, unless you are some kind of monster who doesn't care about herd immunity.) But if you're young and otherwise healthy, you'll probably be fine even if you do catch the flu.
5) World War III breaking out in the Baltics
Threat to Americans: No one wants a global thermo-nuclear war between the West and Russia, including Vladimir Putin. But his meddling in Baltic NATO countries like Estonia, which the US and Western Europe are committed to defend, could inadvertently trigger what we avoided throughout the Cold War: open military conflict between the major nuclear powers. Both Putin and President Obama have threatened as much to try to scare one another out of acting aggressively.
Worst-case scenario: Russia does in Estonia what it did in Ukraine, that snowballs into war between Russia and the US/NATO, and the nukes start falling.
How freaked out should you be: To be very clear: the odds of this happening are extremely low. But the danger is real enough that everyone is taking it seriously (Russia is holding major nuclear exercises). If it did happen, it would be many, many times worse than every other item on this list combined.
4) Climate change
Danger to Americans: Potentially dire. The greatest near-term harm may be from a rise in extreme weather events. Over the next 100 years, that could include deadly heat waves, droughts, flooding, and a rise in sea levels that would affect coastal cities.
Worst-case scenario: The world is trying to limit the global temperature rise to 2°C, because any more than that is considered dangerous. A temperature rise of 4°C would cause "substantial species extinctions" and "large risks to global and regional food security," as well as rising sea levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In other words, a total catastrophe.
How freaked out should you be: If you care about the world your kids and grandkids will grow up in, pretty freaked out. Averting disaster requires immediate, massive, global cuts to carbon emissions. With the US and China particularly dragging their feet, it may simply be too late.
Danger to Americans: Guns kill more than 30,000 Americans every year, about as many deaths as caused by motor vehicles. But only about one in three of those deaths is a homicide. A few thousand are from accidents but most are due to suicide.
Worst-case scenario: We have already chosen to live in a society with the world's highest gun ownership rate and some of its loosest gun control laws, so the worst-case scenario is pretty much here. Still, gun deaths per year are on the rise.
How freaked out should you be: It all depends on whether you see America's uniquely permissive gun laws as worth the trade-off. But you — and, yes, your children — are at risk, regardless of your views about gun regulations.
2) Traffic accidents
Danger to Americans: Very high. About 34,000 deaths in 2011 (the last year with complete data), more than one in four of all deaths related to unintentional injures.
Worst-case scenario: Drunk driving. Don't do it.
How freaked out should you be: The motor vehicle death rate is declining, but getting in your car is still dangerous. Stay alert and don't drink.
1) Heart disease and cancer (tie)
Danger to Americans: The number-one and number-two killers in the US, collectively responsible for just over 50 percent of all American deaths.
Worst-case scenario: These could become even deadlier as Americans get unhealthier. Heart disease correlates with rising obesity. Cancer rates also correlate with obesity, smoking, and other unhealthy practices.
How freaked out should you be: The odds are that one of these two things will kill you, so you should be thinking about this. The good news: it's pretty easy to reduce that risk by making healthy lifestyle choices and screening regularly for cancer. Much easier for any given American, at least, than combatting West African Ebola outbreaks or Middle Eastern terrorist groups.