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The Monsters Below

To the relief of all, the famous doomsday clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been slipping further and further from midnight. Longtime readers of that publication can recall a minute hand two minutes from the perpendicular. We are now back to 11:43.

Articles in the bulletin continue to keep an informed eye on other nuclear perils. But a recent cover story brings word of a new, non-nuclear challenge or, better, an old challenge receiving top-level attention for the first time: “Land Mines: The War Ends but the Killing Goes On.”

Compared to a hydrogen bomb, a land mine is obviously nothing much to worry about. But 200 million land mines scattered around the world are certainly something to worry about. The concern is particularly deep in countries as heavily mined as Cambodia and El Salvador, where, in a way, every belated detonation brings the war monster back to life. When a civilian steps on an unexploded land mine, death or the most savage kind of maiming is the sure result. “Cambodia, where land mines have maimed at least 30,000, is the amputee capital of the world,” reads the caption beneath one poignant photo.

What can be done? The major non-governmental organizations of the world are only now asking that question directly. The grim fact is that mines, so easy for high technology to scatter across a landscape, are cleared only by the ultra-low technology of a man or woman with a stick or maybe with a trained dog. Heavy equipment can be used only in flat, dry terrain. Without it, the work is both inefficient and hazardous in the extreme.

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In the long run, the best prospect for freeing populations, often poor and vulnerable ones, from a lifetime threat of sudden mayhem may be robotics. Here, if anywhere, the prayer must be that somewhere a back-yard tinkerer will come up with a lifesaver that corporate research isn’t likely to come up with because the application is anything but commercial.

Meanwhile, new attention from non-governmental organizations may at least bring a change in the unacceptably casual attitude that has prevailed toward the proliferation in the use of antipersonnel mines--killers that keep on killing so many years after the fighting has officially stopped.


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