Mines: A silent problem – unless you step on one

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 3, 2001

&uot;Not another column about politics, Papa,&uot; my oldest daughter groaned as she read last week’s essay.

Tuesday, April 03, 2001

&uot;Not another column about politics, Papa,&uot; my oldest daughter groaned as she read last week’s essay. &uot;It’s so boring.&uot; And she’s right, of course. It is boring. But it’s also important, even if we often find it mystifying and annoying.

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I know what she wants me to write about. She’s been concerned about land mines for a couple of years (I don’t remember anymore what sparked the concern). Here’s the facts: Every day, around the world, dozens of people are injured when they step on land mines. Some of them are killed. In the time it takes me to watch an episode of StarTrek on TV, at least one person has lost a leg or a life.

The places where land mines litter the landscape are far away from here. Our children don’t have to worry about playgrounds turned into minefields. Our farmers don’t run the risk of dying from an exploding mine when they plow or cultivate their fields. Going for a walk around Pickerel Lake doesn’t require the kind of courage and canniness normally required of soldiers.

But for people who live amidst minefields, life is a continuing battle – for survival. Farmers in some parts of Cambodia can’t even enter their fields because they contain an unknown number of anti-personnel mines. How joyless childhood in Bosnia, Kosovo or Vietnam must be, where straying outside the back yard can mean a death sentence. Queen Noor of Jordan gave a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago and she talked about a couple of kids in Bosnia who strayed into a forgotten minefield and were killed. But one wasn’t killed immediately. She lay there, crying out for her parents. Helplessly, NATO troops and family members stood and listened until there was silence. By the time the necessary mine detecting equipment arrived, she was dead.

In my more bitter moments I wish I could force landmine supporters in Congress to listen to a recording of that child’s last hours, when she died alone, in pain and uncomforted. But even if I could get them to sit still long enough, I doubt they would understand what they were hearing. The US decision to step away from a ban on anti-personnel mines was made by people who only understand the language of strategy and deterrence. In their minds, the &uot;hypothetical&uot; difficulties of tactical decisions on battlefields without anti-personnel mines are more important than the &uot;actual&uot; tragedies caused by the millions of land mines currently in the ground. The logic of strategic planners is cold and merciless, and does not understand the terror and helplessness of people suffering from the lingering fallout of war.

A decision to ban land mines would not immediately cause land mines to disappear; no one is stupid enough to believe that. But it would make it harder to manufacture and distribute them in the future. Agreeing to a ban on the manufacture and deployment of anti-personnel mines would also have given a clear moral message to the world about where American priorities lie.

Unfortunately, Americans haven’t shown much interest in the problems that land mines cause around the world. We have had elections with choices between supporters of land mine bans and opponents, but that issue has never been as big as the taxes thing or prescription drugs for seniors. There are, of course, some who care about this issue passionately enough that they risk their lives to help clear minefields around the world. Many Americans help pay for mine clearing and for the care of the maimed and crippled victims of land mine explosions. Our government even helps out with limited technical and financial assistance. But all of this still means very slow progress. And with land mines available from arms manufacturers, more problems are just around the corner.

It’s a terrible thought, but maybe if our own children were being crippled or killed, we would care a little bit more. Our technology is harming people around the world. Our &uot;strategic and tactical&uot; concerns are making it almost impossible to stop the problem from continuing to get worse. The fact that the deaths and injuries are taking place thousands of miles away does not erase our responsibility to do something to help those who are suffering right now and to make the use of mines more difficult in the future.

David Behling’s is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.