Ever since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has been looking to Hollywood for help in burnishing America's image around the world. Who can forget 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, though, 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 landmines -- a move that would help us win foreign friends and influence the widespread international perception of us as unfeeling bullies, thus speeding up the Sisyphean task of re-making America's image.
First, on Oscar night, Bosnia's "No Man's Land" was the surprise winner of the best foreign language film award. A withering anti-war satire, the film centers on the travails of a wounded Bosnian soldier who finds himself, in a post-modern dilemma worthy of Samuel Beckett, lying on a landmine booby-trapped to explode if he gets up.
Then, tonight, "The West Wing" will feature a plotline in which the newly named U.S. poet laureate chastises the White House for not signing the international treaty banning landmines. 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 America's landmine policy. As it currently stands, the U.S. has stubbornly refused to join the 142 nations that have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty forbidding the use, stockpiling and production of anti-personnel landmines -- a devastating weapon that has proven far more effective at killing and maiming innocent civilians than enemy troops.
Since 1975, landmines have killed over a million people -- far outstripping the deaths caused by those well-publicized bugaboos, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The buried bomblets claim a new victim every 22 minutes -- that's 24,000 casualties a year. And of those 24,000, 95 percent are civilians. Even more horrifying, 50 percent of those maimed or killed are children.
What makes landmines so repugnant is their lethal and long-lived promiscuity -- they don't care who they destroy. Once sown in the earth, they hold their grudges long after the soldiers who planted them have departed and long after the conflicts that seemed to necessitate their use have withered. Their bloody harvest can sprout days, months, years, 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.
In an era of ever more precise smart-bomb technology, landmines are the ultimate in imbecilic weaponry. They are the psycho-killers of modern arms: cross their path and they blow you away -- for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
And they are a murderous gift that keeps on giving: landmines never get the word that a ceasefire has been ordered, or that last year's battlefield is once again some family's backyard or some farmer's field or some children's playground.
There are approximately 120 million landmines still buried in at least 90 different countries, including a million in Bosnia, a million in Afghanistan, and 10 million in Angola -- a generous helping of one mine for every person in that war-ravaged country. There are so many unexploded mines spread across the globe, and removing them is such a painstaking (and often deadly) task, that experts estimate it will take over 150 years to get rid of them all. And that's if no new mines are laid. Unfortunately, for every mine that is removed, a staggering 25 new mines are being laid.
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, the executive director of Landmine Survivors Network, who gave my 12-year old daughter and me a simple but powerful lesson. First he handed us a small, round, bright green object -- an actual landmine. Then, without warning, he showed us 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 20-year-old 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 Jerry 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 Mine Ban Treaty now.