A year from now, no one will be talking much about AIDS anymore. That's not a prediction about the course of the disease, which will probably be right on schedule -- heading for 300,000 or so cases and 200,000 fatalities by 1991. It's not a moral assertion about whether AIDS is or should be a "crisis." It's not the announcement of a cure or a prediction that something even worse will come along.
It's simply an assertion that something else will come along. Our culture is incapable of maintaining the current level of hysteria about any one thing much longer. Remember nuclear war? Remember drugs? Oh, AIDS is worse? So you say now. As recently as 1983, nuclear war threatened the future of all human life. What's worse than that?
If 54,000 Americans die of AIDS in 1991, as predicted, it will be at number-five, between chronic lung disease and pneumonia, as a cause of death. These will mostly be young deaths, of course. But rightly or wrongly, they can easily be absorbed into the background noise of a busy and distractable society.
Hastening this development will be the growing realization that there almost surely is not going to be a "breakout" into the general heterosexual, non-drug-using community. A woman's chance of getting AIDS from sleeping once with an infected man is reported to be about one in a thousand. For men the odds are even better. Since the keepers of the zeitgeist tend to be heterosexual men who don't use intravenous drugs, the era of AIDS television specials and newsmagazine covers is just about over.
The end of the AIDS "crisis" may lead to complacency about taking precautions against a danger which, though small for most people, is genuine. Knowing that the disease will primarily affect a widely disdained minority may reduce society's commitment to finding a vaccine or cure. But the demise of AIDS hysteria at least will undermine conservative attempts to exploit the disease.
Conservatives are obsessed with AIDS like no other group apart from gays themselves. But the conservative AIDS crusade suffers from a central illogic. Concerns about discrimination against AIDS victims, says White House domestic policy adviser Gary Bauer, "take a clear back seat to the protection of those Americans who are not yet infected." But you can only be infected by AIDS through behavior these same crusaders classify as immoral. Anyone who is chaste before marriage, monogamous within marriage, and avoids illegal drugs is at virtually no risk.
If the conservative crusade were limited to promoting this particular gospel, there would be no puzzle. But conservatives are also zealots for widespread mandatory AIDS testing, or even -- in the case of Jesse Helms -- for quarantining of victims. Yet people who behave themselves as Gary Bauer and Jesse Helms would wish don't need the protection or these measures. So why the passionate concern for adulterers and philanderers and pederasts and addicts? They're all God's children, of course. But usually it is liberals who get accused of using big government to shield people from the consequences of their own actions.
Clearly, then, gays and civil libertarians are right that preventing the spread of AIDS is not the whole agenda, or even the main agenda, for the most vigorous advocates of a "tough" policy on AIDS. They are right to be suspicious of what might otherwise be reasonable calls for increased AIDS testing. They are right to suspect that the tragic trade-off between protecting the individual sufferer from discrimination and protecting society is no trade-off at all in the minds of testing's greatest enthusiasts. And they are right, therefore, not to trust promises that the results of testing will not be misused.
Even in situations where AIDS hysteria and discrimination against AIDS victims bring no conceivable public-health benefit, the Reagan administration has been indifferent or worse about the individual side of the equation. It is clear beyond all doubt that AIDS cannot be spread by non-sexual personal contact. Yet Attorney General Ed Meese applauded D.C. policemen for wearing gloves at a gay demonstration at an AIDS conference in May. Until rebuffed by the Supreme Court, the Justice Department took the fatuous position that job discrimination against AIDS carriers is permissible, since "an individual's (real or perceived) ability to transmit a disease is not a handicap" under the law. By this cramped logic, an employer could legally refuse to hire blacks on the grounds of an irrational belief that working near blacks causes cancer.
Times of emergency, it's said, are when societal claims are at their peak and individual rights must bend the most. That's true. But times of extremity are also when irrational fears most threaten minority rights. People who lived through, for example, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II say, "You have to have been there to understand how it could have happened." With luck, and no thanks to our present leaders, it looks like we will avoid having to say something similar some day.