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Turn the Spotlight on Land Mines


Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has looked to Hollywood for help in burnishing the United States' image around the world. Remember roving ambassador Karl Rove taking a meeting in Beverly Hills with the entertainment industry's heaviest hitters back in November? As so often happens in the film business, the initial pitch generated a lot of buzz, then "Untitled White House Project" found itself languishing in development hell.

This week, however, Tinsel Town has turned the spotlight on the importance of banning land mines--a move that would help the United States win foreign friends and influence the widespread perception of us as unfeeling bullies.

First, on Oscar night, Bosnia's "No Man's Land" was the surprise winner of the best foreign-language film award. A withering antiwar satire, the film centers on the travails of a wounded Bosnian soldier who finds himself, in a postmodern dilemma worthy of Samuel Beckett, lying on a land mine booby-trapped to explode if he gets up.

Then, this week's "The West Wing" featured a plot line in which the newly named U.S. poet laureate chastises the White House for not signing the international treaty banning land mines. Her conviction stems from a searing personal experience, watching a father and son fishing in Bosnia. "The kid hooked a piece of garbage," she tells communications director Toby Ziegler, "and when he tried to take it off the line, it blew him up. Right in front of his father. And right in front of me."

Hollywood's creative convergence on this issue comes at a time when the real West Wing is reviewing U.S. land mine policy. The U.S. has refused to join the 142 nations that have signed the 1997 treaty forbidding the use, stockpiling and production of antipersonnel land mines--a devastating weapon that has proved far more effective at killing and maiming innocent civilians than enemy troops. Since 1975, land mines have killed more than 1 million people, far outstripping the deaths caused by those well-publicized bugaboos, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The buried bomblets claim 24,000 casualties a year, 95% of them civilians. Even more horrifying, 30% are kids.

What makes land mines so repugnant is their lethal and long-lived promiscuity. Once sown in earth, they hold their grudges long after the soldiers who planted them have left. Their bloody harvest can sprout days, months, even decades after they have been laid. And mines are an equal opportunity killer; they can't tell to which side the soldier stepping on them belongs or if the footstep setting them off is that of a child.

There are about 80 million unexploded land mines buried across the globe, and removing them is such a painstaking (and often deadly) task that experts estimate it will take decades to get rid of them all.

For Danis Tanovic, who spent two years documenting real war atrocities as a cameraman in Bosnia before writing and directing "No Man's Land," making the public aware of such carnage is the only way to stop it.

"Bosnia was saved, thanks to journalists," he says. "People were seeing what was happening; people were embarrassed by what they were seeing."

I had a similar reaction when I met with Jerry White, executive director of Landmine Survivors Network, who gave me a simple but powerful lesson. First he handed me a small, round bright-green object, an actual land mine. Then, without warning, he showed me what that innocent-looking device can do by unscrewing his prosthesis and revealing the remains of what used to be his right leg. He lost it when, as a student on a hiking trip in Israel, he stepped on a mine that had been buried by Syrian soldiers 17 years earlier.

The stories told by White, "No Man's Land" and this week's "West Wing" should inspire us to do all we can to embarrass the president into action: He should sign the land mine treaty now.


Arianna Huffington is a syndicated columnist.

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