In a Washington Monthly post titled “Chicken Little Politics”, Ed Kilgore writes about the ridiculous public frenzy around the topics of ISIS and Ebola:
Far beyond its impact on the current election, however, the susceptibility of Americans to particular types of panic-mongering is—well, not something to panic over, but a source of legitimate concern. It’s extremely likely that the upsurge of fear surrounding IS has little to do with any rational assessment of that organization’s actual capacity to carry out major acts of terrorism in the United States, and everything to do with the beheading videos, which portray a level of savagery that Americans associate with Third World habits of behavior they find scary and inscrutable. And Ebola, of course, is the latest Plague, also brought to us from the Heart of Darkness. Meanwhile, a much more pervasive and dangerous threat—that of global climate change—seems too abstract to command much public concern.
Aside from the overtly racist aspect of these fears (which should not be underestimated), it is worth pointing out that there is a personal aspect to this kind of stuff in a way that is absence from a more realistic menace like global climate change.
Yes, the climate may be changing, but it is not clear 1) how it will affect any given person, or 2) what any particular person can actually do about it. With media-fed panics like the current Ebola and ISIS hysteria, there are images of scary-looking dudes chopping people’s heads off, or the possibility that you or someone you know is going to start vomiting up blood and intestines, Fulci-style. Or both. Terrifying!
These fears tie directly into years of fictional portrayals of disasters and tragedies. Most people are woefully bad at determining what constitutes an actual threat they should worry about, and they have been primed to panic about personifed, scary stuff.