They're reprehensible, and we're all too familiar with their unintended consequences: shattered limbs and shattered lives. They're not weapons of mass destruction but weapons of terror. They're land mines.
Why are Americans and others able to ignore this moral outrage?
Is it because the 30,000 people killed or wounded each year by land mines are poor?
Is it because they are of different ethnic or religious groups?
Is it because they live far away in more than five dozen countries from Chechnya to Ecuador to Zaire?
Other people's children
Or is it because we believe that the 110 million land mines already planted, or the additional 100 million stockpiled, will never kill or cripple our own children or grandchildren?
Representatives of several nations, including the United States, will convene in Ottawa for three days beginning Oct. 3 to begin addressing the problem of land mines in a comprehensive manner. They must keep in mind the faces of children, for more than 60 percent of land-mine victims are under age 15.
Military leaders have debated and will continue to debate the effectiveness of land mines. However well or poorly land mines do their job, they come at a high price: They cheapen human life.
Unfortunately, we live in an era when moral arguments are not often heard. But there is another, more pragmatic rationale the conferees in Ottawa should hear. To stop the senseless killing and maiming of civilians, we must destroy the economic viability of land mines and eliminate their "profitability" as weapons.
The United States and other countries are spending billions of dollars to rebuild Cambodia and other mine-riddled nations. For the first time, the World Bank is loaning money to Angola and Bosnia for de-mining activities.
Yet economic recovery is hampered by the presence of mines, which renders large areas of cropland unusable. And young men and women - as well as children with their whole lives ahead of them - are rendered invalids in nations whose economies desperately need their labor but instead struggle to pay for their rehabilitation or assimilation into the workforce.
Though the United States does not export land mines, it does continue to produce them, along with more than 50 other nations, including China, Japan, Russia, and Cuba. Prior to a ban on the distribution of land mines passed three years ago by Congress, American-made mines were among the most technologically sophisticated in the world. But economics still played a role in the land-mine trade. Why pay $30 or more for an American land mine, when one just as effective, but produced by another country, costs about $3?
Land mines are readily available and easy to deploy. There are more than 300 types of this "military confetti." They are spewed from airplanes, helicopters, and trucks, or they are simply planted by hand. Many of the popular models are invisible to most metal detectors. Furthermore, the costs associated with locating, destabilizing, and removing just one land mine total about $1,000.
It doesn't take an economist to recognize that land mines, for their intended purpose of killing or crippling people, are very cheap.
A prohibition on land mines would not stop some of the major exporters - rogue nations such as Iraq and Iran, for example - from selling them illegally. But it would eliminate the legal supply of them.
A hidden benefit in making land mines illegal to produce is that it raises the cost to countries, terrorist organizations, or others seeking land mines. The irony is that the incentive is increased for countries still producing land mines to enter the black market.
A more comprehensive solution to this perplexing problem is to reduce the cost-effectiveness of land mines as weapons. Therefore, the goal of the Ottawa summit must be to reduce the demand for land mines by developing an inexpensive, highly effective technique to identify and clear land-mine fields.
The United States, as the last remaining superpower, can and should take a leadership role toward accomplishing this goal. President Clinton, through his representative in Ottawa, must make a commitment to develop the necessary technology. Recent reports on the possibility of using commercial satellites to detect land mines may provide momentum for such a commitment.
Voices of sanity
American citizens must add their voices to the discussion in Ottawa. Many children around the world, if given a voice, would cheer us on. So too, would generations to come, so they can live their lives fully and wholly.
All of us need to hear the voices of sanity that oppose these seeds of death. Land mines represent an important issue of public policy, as well as a moral imperative - an issue where the law of economics meets the law of unintended consequences.
Robert A. Seiple, president of World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization, has met land-mine victims in Bosnia, Mozambique, and many other countries, including Vietnam - where, as a US Marine aviator, he scattered land mines during the war.