In recent weeks, two items bearing massive price tags have surfaced in the news. They appear unrelated. In fact, they spring from a single root. One is the estimate that the espionage activities of the United States Marines guarding the embassy in Moscow may have cost American taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. That, say investigators, could be the price of resecuring the nation's worldwide diplomatic communications network - if it has been penetrated by Soviet agents.
The other is the announcement by President Reagan that acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, is now ``public health enemy No. 1.'' The administration proposes to spend $1 billion fighting it.
What ties these items together? Each, in itself, is serious. But each is only an indicator light, flashing warnings of a problem deep within the moral machinery of modern society.
First, the embassy case. Most Marines guarding US embassies do admirably in the face of pressures both subtle and intense. Those chosen for such missions are young men, typically without overseas experience. They are required to be unmarried. Cut off from families, warned against mingling with the local population, they are also isolated (by virtue of their low-ranking military status) from the collegiality typical to overseas diplomatic communities.
That's not to say, however, that the Moscow contingent should be exonerated for giving embassy access to Soviet agents. Far from it. Something in their ethical garments had clearly come unstitched - or had never been there at all. Why? Part of the answer may well lie in the American educational system that produced them. Were the values that might have helped those young men - patriotism, loyalty, the respect for a community beyond the self, the ethics of responsibility - ever really taught in their schools? Or had such concepts, instead, been excluded from the classroom in an effort to create a ``values neutral'' education? Is that education now producing - as one might logically expect it to - a generation of values-neutral Americans?
Second, the upsurge of AIDS. With the recent announcement that some recipients of blood transfusions may be at risk, a wave of fear has run through the nation. That fear should call forth wellsprings of compassion. The time has never been less ripe for an I-told-you-so misinterpretation of the Old Testament, gloating over the wrathful punishment of sinners. Needed, just now, is a healing touch - the kind that restores immunity in all sorts of ways.
But there are times when the most healing touch is a fresh breath of honesty and moral courage. What must honestly and courageously be faced - in both the AIDS and the embassy situations - is a simple fact: that each issue is deeply intertwined with a breakdown in sexual morality.
Look again at what underlies these two situations:
Several of the Marines were involved in sexual relationships with Soviet women who worked at the embassy. Had these young men been faithfully married - or had they espoused higher sexual values - they might never have opened themselves to sexual entrapment and entanglement with the KGB.
AIDS, which first arose in the United States in the homosexual community, has become a major problem because of indiscriminate sexual contact, either homosexual or heterosexual. Without sexual promiscuity, it is difficult to see how AIDS could ever gain a foothold.
Those may not be popular things to say. A values-neutral age finds it awkward to discover that some values are better than others.
What's really being challenged here is one of the 20th century's most fashionable social tenets. It holds that an individual's sexual behavior is a personal matter, of no relevance to the community at large. What we're being compelled to admit, instead, is that such so-called ``private'' matters are costing American taxpayers a billion dollars for AIDS research and tens of millions for a security breach.
That's hardly a private matter. Compassion, and the need for security, dictate that those costs be paid. But let's have no illusions about what generates the costs. They can be traced directly to a breakdown of the standards of sexual morality. And that's only a dollar cost - and only for the present. The real and long-term cost of such behavior - in lives destroyed, families shattered, and trust undermined - is incalculable. What has disintegrated is the willingness to uphold moral standards. What has failed is our capacity for non-consent - our ability to say no. What is deficient is our immunity to impurity.
Ethics, probity, purity - these things have never been simply private matters, no matter what current fashion says. Even the matter of the sexual relations of individuals has historially been of great concern to the community at large. That concern survives today in the tradition of having marriages countenanced by public authority and weddings celebrated in public. These aren't idle customs. They grow up out of recognition that the sexual behavior of a citizenry is deeply relevant to the nation as a whole - if only because the costs of a moral collapse are so vast.
If the nation can bring to the AIDS situation and the embassy case a deep and honest compassion, it will recognize that the kindest and most healing touch must not center in blame for the individuals involved. It must center in a steady return from sexual license to moral uprightness - with a clear conviction that such a return is still (as it always has been) vital to the nation's health, happiness, and survival.
A Monday column