Facing up to the circle of destruction

November 07, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- He appeared in the packed Bronx courtroom on Monday. A young black man who had turned 21 just two days earlier in his solitary cell. He was outfitted in jeans and dreadlocks. He was silent, unaccompanied by any family member.

Standing there, waiting to be sentenced for selling crack to an undercover policeman, he could have been an ordinary drug dealer. But ordinary drug dealers do not get such attention.

This was Nushawn Williams, who achieved infamy as a one-man HIV epidemic. This was Nushawn Williams who had knowingly had sex with dozens of girls and women without using one condom or offering one explanation. This was Nushawn Williams who had infected at least nine who had in turn infected others in a list that is by no means complete.

The man called ''Face'' had indeed become the latest face of the AIDS epidemic: the sexual predator, the serial infector.

Hapless girls

The media had already rolled in and out of the small town of Jamestown, N.Y., on its national tour of moral melodramas. Reporters had invaded the shabby places where Mr. Williams used to hang with homeless, hapless girls of 13, 15, 17 who had needed his drugs or his attention.

Infotainment news had scooped up girls who had known Face, slept with Face. Girls waiting to see whether the last gift he had given them was a lethal virus were quoted and featured. They were videotaped and dropped as abruptly as any one-night stand.

By the time Monday rolled around, when the judge postponed sentencing on his drug charge for psychiatric evaluation, the story had been permanently filed under E for evil. If the court was unclear whether Mr. Williams was a monster or a schizophrenic, morally warped or mentally ill or both -- that distinction was lost on the public.

Indeed, on the day that Mr. Williams was ushered in and out of court in two minutes, New York state legislators filed a bill to make a new felony. To knowingly expose an uninformed partner to HIV would be ''aggravated reckless endangerment,'' worth up to 15 years in jail -- if he lived that long.

Well, I hold no brief for this mad/bad man. If the stories hold true, this drug dealer and statutory rapist, this man who went through a community spreading HIV like some horrific Johnny Appleseed, has lost his right to freedom. Give me the key and we will never see his Face again.

But I am struck by how much more attention is given to the most extreme, deliberate, even maniacal individual than to the menace itself. Do we think that corralling one mad/bad man or two, or two dozen, who maliciously infect unsuspecting partners is an effective public health policy? That it will make a dent in the statistics?

Consider the passion with which we go after the predator and the neglect of prevention. I don't know how Mr. Williams was infected, but most of the cases in the country now come directly or indirectly from drug use, from people who share needles or share beds with people who share needles. Needles are the most efficient way to transfer this disease, far more so than sex.

The ''Nushawn Williams Bill'' prepared for the New York Assembly would also make it a felony for a drug user with HIV to knowingly share needles with an unsuspecting person. But where are all the programs for clean needle exchange?

We are playing a certain kind of ''let's pretend.'' While we ratchet up the punishment, we withhold programs that work.

At a hastily assembled high school forum on AIDS, parents in Jamestown were actually warned about the risks of sharing toothbrushes. They were told to pack several in their children's camp and college bags.

Washington' response

But in Washington, Congress has just made another move in a destructive and relentless campaign to continue withholding federal funds for needle exchange programs. Instead of condoms and clean needles, should we ask for toothbrushes?

The reader-grabber, viewer-grabber stories are about irresponsible individual behavior, not irresponsible collective behavior. Predators stir the imagination. Prevention is the boring reality.

Nushawn Williams, monster or schizophrenic, irresponsible or pathological, is now beyond the reach of everything except punishment. But in the struggle to contain AIDS, the tools of education, of condoms and clean needles, deserve much more of our attention.

At high noon in the AIDS epidemic, this is what we need to face.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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