Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: AIDS was created by the CIA.
Origins: The ghastly disease AIDS burst upon the scene in the early 1980s. Though this particular grim reaper has not long stalked among us, it has taken millions of lives and has staked its cold-fingered claim to millions more. That it seemed to appear out of nowhere has sparked a multitude of rumors regarding its origin and path of destruction. Rumors about AIDS include claims that it was:
It's a simple explanation: Diseases live on by finding victims to infect, and diseases that jump species (sometimes undergoing changes in the process) find a whole new set of victims available to them. Yet this is too pat an explanation for many of us, and we tend to reject that which doesn't fit well to our understanding of our world, substituting in its place myths that, although disturbing, at least seem more logical. We make the arrogant assumption that our world should always make sense according to our current level of knowledge; such a premise works well in most cases but breaks down in the face of matters our understanding does not yet encompass. At those moments at least some of us scramble to find explanations — any explanations — that can be shoehorned into service.
That a death-dealing plague could spring into being during our lifetimes defiles our cherished sense of order: deadly diseases don't just come from nowhere, after all, at least not according to our understanding of the way of things. We've also grown to trust that Science always has the answer for everything. That this pestilence could defy the efforts of our best healers and researchers strikes us as flat-out wrong. Surely a natural malady would have been cured by now; ergo, we conclude, AIDS must be manmade. The disease's sudden appearance and its tenacity have laid a foundation for rumors about biochemical pathogens that escaped the laboratory by accident and supported whispers that the virus was engineered to wipe out specific ethnic or racial groups. It is, after all, far more comforting to believe in malevolent forces like the CIA than to grasp that nature could spontaneously create incurable diseases.
Rumors about lab experiments gone wrong or deliberate attempts to decimate certain groups are part of our struggle to come to terms with the unfathomable, to reduce it to something that can be comprehended and dealt with. Also, the AIDS origin stories we tell give us someone to blame, providing us with the comfort of a whipping boy in place of the terror inherent to "It just happened; there was no because to it." The acknowledgement that something so deadly could "just happen" is a starkly unforgiving reality that arrives accompanied by its chilling yet unstated companion message of "Something similar could happen again, maybe even tomorrow, and maybe even to us." AIDS origin rumors reflect both western society's anxiety about this dread killer and its attempts to make sense of it.
AIDS origin rumors fall into two categories: biological warfare experiments tried out on groups deemed expendable (Africans or Haitians) or deliberate attempts to diminish particular "unfavorable" populations (Africans, Haitians, homosexuals) via biochemical attack. In her study of AIDS origin lore, folklorist Patricia Turner identified a number of recurring motifs in the hundreds of versions of the rumor she collected:
Part of the prevalence of the AIDS origin rumor that pins responsibility for the virus on the CIA (or another group within the American government) may be due to deliberate Soviet misinformation designed to discredit the USA. An article charging AIDS was the product of
In 1986 at a summit held in Zimbabwe, what purported to be a scholarly paper linking the
Barbara "on the cold war path" Mikkelson
Last updated: 1 August 2007
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