With Magic Johnson's announcement that he has contracted the AIDS virus, an epidemic that many Americans have been able to ignore has taken on a human face.
It's a face with a smile we can't forget, because behind that warm, magical smile is a true hero -- an athlete who knows how to touch people as much with his humanity and decency as with his grace and skill on a basketball court. He's not a hero we want to associate with disease and death.
Johnson pointed out that he doesn't yet have AIDS, he only has the virus that causes the disease. Even so, as things now stand, the progression from HIV infection to a full-blown, fatal case of AIDS is inevitable.
Magic's dramatic announcement brought shock and sadness and disbelief. Once again, our uneasy truce with mortality was shaken. Our assumptions about disease and responsibility were exposed as false -- the assumption that AIDS is a plague confined to high-risk groups.
Because we know how AIDS is transmitted, it has been easy to associate the disease with behaviors most Americans frown on -- promiscuous sexual activity, especially male homosexual promiscuity, and with intravenous drug use. It has been easy for many of us to dismiss the disease by thinking, if only to ourselves, that people with AIDS got what they deserved.
That assumption has a twin, one that also needs re-evaluating. This one lulls us into thinking that, as long as we avoid high-risk behavior, disease and death should leave us alone.
This kind of thinking extends far beyond AIDS. How many times do we ask whether someone who dies of lung cancer was a smoker? Or whether a heart attack victim was overweight and out of shape? Or whether a stroke victim ate too much salt?
We ask those questions because we want to find reasons for death and disease. We want these things to make sense. If certain habits or behaviors help cause cancer or heart attacks or strokes, maybe we can eliminate those habits and avoid the danger of death.
Certainly we can improve our chances. But we're fooling ourselves if we pretend we can buy a guarantee, no matter how many miles we run or how healthy our diet. There are no perfect odds.
Actually, that's not true. There is one certainty, an old one that we prefer to forget. Despite all our knowledge and all the power we have to change our behavior and the world around us, we cannot change the basic truth that governs our lives -- the truth that we are mortals, that sooner or later all of us will die.
Magic Johnson now hears the tick-tock of mortality louder than those of us who have not been handed such news. But he's not the only one who faces death. We all do, regardless of how good or bad our behavior.
Magic Johnson admits he hasn't led a perfect life. Who has? But his news gives us a chance to re-evaluate our attitudes.
In the decade since AIDS first made its way into the headlines, it has been too easy to blame people with AIDS for their own fate. And it has been too easy to center public sympathy only on those who were considered innocent victims -- people like Ryan White, the boy contaminated by a blood transfusion, or Kimberly Bergalis, the young woman infected by her dentist.
But like all the rest of us, every person with AIDS is someone with a face. Maybe not a face or a skill as memorable as Magic's, but a face and history nonetheless.
Maybe they -- or we -- deserve to die, and maybe not. Magic's news reminds us that those judgments are not for us to make.