WASHINGTON -- Regular visitors to this space may have noted with chagrin that I'm inclined to ponder the imponderables. You know, the big, seemingly unanswerable questions of great cosmological import -- the kind of riddles the noted 20th-century philosopher Arsenio Hall liked to describe as "things that make you go hmmm."
Typically, however, my earnest investigation of timeless riddles is quickly reduced to a consummate American blend of cynicism and self-absorption. While a tsunami was wiping away hundreds of thousands of lives, for example, I took a moment to mourn the death of my mailbox. Why is it always my mailbox that attracts the bumper of an errant car at least once a year, I wondered while admiring with envy the sturdy, intact mailboxes of my neighbors. Similarly, I turned away from news coverage of Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearings to react to the Oscar nominations. How could the Academy have overlooked the performance of Regina King -- one of my favorite actresses -- in "Ray," I asked. How many scenes does she have to steal before she becomes a household name?
Maybe I just haven't been paying sufficient attention. How else could I have overlooked the possibility that a single, nefarious culprit lurks behind these and other nagging mysteries? Like the CIA, for example. If that elusive government agency can bring down a foreign government, it can certainly devote a few hours of staff attention to rigging the Oscars and wrecking my mailbox.
I'm thinking about the CIA because significant numbers of other black Americans may be doing the same. In a new survey of 500 African-Americans released by the Rand Corp. and Oregon State University, nearly half of respondents said that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was created by scientists. Twelve percent attributed the creation and spread of AIDS to the CIA. According to a story in The Washington Post, 44 percent of the respondents regard people who take new HIV medicines as government guinea pigs, while another 15 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against black people.
Such beliefs are often expressed by African-Americans of all economic classes and educational backgrounds, says Aaisya Ansari-Lawal, a Washington-area emergency physician who regularly treats AIDS patients. She identified three significant impediments to HIV and AIDS treatment in African-American communities. "Number one is limited access to health care," she told me. "Two is the prevalence of myths about the disease. Three is spirituality. We believe if we pray hard enough it will go away. I interview patients every day and that's what they tell me."
Ansari-Lawal, who is spiritually inclined herself, tries to treat her patients' religious beliefs with respect. At the same time, she says, "I tell them that this is pure science. Just like diabetes, hypertension and other illnesses, HIV needs drugs to correct it. There is no cure, we just have medicine to control it. The research is not as refined as it has been for some illnesses but it will get there."
To be clear, I'm respectful of citizens who regard government agencies with suspicion. The illegal and immoral abuses conducted by the United States in the pursuit of such vaunted objectives as science, national security and triumph over the forces of evil are as much a part of our tradition as hot dogs and Chevrolets. And while blacks have never been the sole victims of such operations, they have frequently suffered as a result of them. The story of the Tuskegee Experiments, a 40-year project in which government scientists studied the effect of untreated syphilis on black men while pretending to give them medication, has been passed down from generation to generation -- as well it should.
But casting suspicion on the CIA and other not entirely unreasonable suspects doesn't deter the spread of HIV among African-Americans, nor provide a plausible excuse for lax behavior. Blacks account for 50 percent of new HIV infections in the United States, despite representing only 13 percent of the population.
For argument's sake, let's say that AIDS was indeed created in a laboratory specifically to kill African-Americans. Wouldn't continuing to engage in multiple sexual relationships -- avoiding condoms all the while -- merely aid and abet our would-be murderers? I'm tempted to think that any group that wanted to do away with African-Americans would soon conclude that an organized campaign would be a waste of time and resources. Thoughtless self-destruction is apparently a task we can handle on our own.