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December 11, 2009
BILL MOYERS: Many people are perplexed that Barack Obama flew to Oslo this week to receive the Nobel Peace Prize so soon after escalating the war in Afghanistan. He's now doubled the number of troops that were there when George W. Bush left office. The irony was not lost on the president, and he tried to address it in his acceptance speech.

BARACK OBAMA: I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict — filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.

BILL MOYERS: Granted, there's a gap here between the rhetoric and the reality. But there was something askew about the Nobel Peace Prize from the beginning in no small part because it's awarded in the name of the man who invented dynamite, one of the most powerful and destructive weapons in the human arsenal.

It was rumored that after Alfred Nobel brought his version of Frankenstein into the world, he was torn by guilt, his shame said to have been intensified when a French newspaper prematurely ran his obituary with the headline, "the merchant of death is dead." It vilified him as a man "who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before." And so, in his will, Nobel created the Nobel Prizes, among them a prize for peace.

After his death, events turned grim, as if to mock him further. The arms race exploded beyond anything he could have imagined. From the coupling of science and the military came ever more ingenious weapons of destruction that would take even more lives in ever more horrible ways.

One of the most insidious was the land mine, that small, explosive device filled with shrapnel that burns or blinds, maims or kills and is triggered by the touch of a foot or movement or even sound. More often than not, it's the innocent who are its victims — 75 to 80 percent of the time, in fact.

The United States has not actively used land mines since the first Gulf War in 1991, but we still possess 10-15 million of them, making us the third largest stockpiler in the world, behind China and Russia. Like those two countries, we have refused to sign an international agreement banning the manufacture, stockpiling and use of land mines. Since 1997, 156 other nations have signed it, including every country in NATO.

Just days before Obama flew to Oslo, to make his Nobel peace prize speech, an international summit conference was held in Cartagena, Colombia, to review the progress of the treaty. The United States sent representatives and the state department says our government has begun a comprehensive review of its current policy.Last year 5000 people were killed or wounded by land mines, they kill or blow away the limbs of a farmer or child as indiscriminately as they do a soldier. But we still refuse to sign, citing security commitments to our friends and allies, such as South Korea, where a million mines fill the demilitarized zone between it and North Korea.

Twelve years ago, the Nobel peace prize was jointly awarded to the international campaign to ban landmines and to Jody Williams, an activist from Vermont who believes that by organizing into a movement, ordinary people can matter.

She proved it, despite the stubborn refusal of her own country's government to do the right thing. The Nobel committee said that part of the reason it was giving the peace prize to president Obama was for his respect of international law and his efforts at disarmament. And twice in his Nobel lecture, the president noted that far more civilians than soldiers die in war. Then he said this:

BARACK OBAMA: I believe that all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I, like any head of state, reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't.

And still the land mine treaty goes unsigned by the government he leads. Go figure.

I'm Bill Moyers.
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