A column about Magic Johnson's announcement that he has the AIDS virus provoked some interesting responses.
A reader in Warren, Mich., writes:
"Thank you for your column. I was sickened by the talk following Magic Johnson's announcement. How did he get it, everybody wondered. Even newspeople had to confirm that it was not through homosexual sex. It sickens me to think our society puts more weight on how someone got sick than trying to help those who are."
Another reader writes:
"Your statement that Earvin Johnson does not deserve to die seemed curious to me. Death is not merited; it is a certainty that all humans will die. The thought that struck me is that we humans have been allowed to make choices in our lives. The person who smokes too much faces the risk of dying of cancer. The person who is negligent with food risks obesity and heart disease. Those who choose to abuse alcohol risk liver problems and other health problems. Magic Johnson chose to risk his health by having sex with several women, and one or more of them carried HIV. He lost!
"I don't think he is being punished for his action but, rather, he is facing the consequences of choices he made. I think that this is the lesson we need to learn. . . . There are those who are innocent victims in our society who face an early death through no fault of their own, but Americans make many choices which shorten our life span." -- L. D., Troy, Mich.
More than most diseases, AIDS tests our compassion and our common sense. In this country, the disease has claimed its largest numbers of victims among male homosexuals and intravenous drug abusers, groups that draw little sympathy from the wider public. That makes it easier to point fingers and assign blame -- which also helps to make the finger-pointer feel safer by thinking, "As long as I don't engage in that kind of behavior, I don't deserve to get this disease."
But blaming people for contracting AIDS ignores the larger picture. In many parts of the world, AIDS is spreading through heterosexual contacts and wreaking havoc on societies. In some African countries, for instance, governments and relief agencies are struggling with an AIDS epidemic that is killing off the men and women of the bread-winning generation. Often, the aging parents of these adults, themselves in failing health, are left to care for large numbers of grandchildren with no reliable source of income.
Ultimately, once someone has AIDS, or even the virus that causes it, the point is not whether he or she made mistakes, but whether that person will receive care, dignity and respect.
Certainly we all bear responsibility for our actions. But if we start passing out blame for behaviors that can bring on disease or death, we'll all be in trouble.
One reason our health insurance system is so inadequate is that some insurance companies refuse coverage to people who carry high medical risks, and thus the likelihood of expensive care.
In truth, we would all like to avoid the consequences, but we can't. We're all at risk -- if not of contracting AIDS through a dirty hypodermic needle, then of any number of other life-threatening diseases or accidents. Sometimes it might be our fault, as in a traffic accident caused by carelessness. Sometimes it may be for no obvious reason.
Simply by living we risk dying every day. Judging whose risks are acceptable and who deserves blame is a tricky game. Playing it may mean that the compassion we deny to someone else may be someday denied to us.