exceptions prove rules


While we’re on the subject of Bin Laden and an innocent and accidental mash-up of a MLK quote, I don’t think the attribution “controversy” (such as it is) isn’t the interesting thing here, it’s the sentiment. The genesis of the quote is from an English teacher in Japan, who posted her Facebook status thusly:


Which raises the question: If you don’t believe in the death penalty, and you don’t believe in killing other human beings, is it still okay to kill Osama bin Laden? In the morally relativistic world of adulthood, it can be answered with a shrug, but that’s not the world you live in if you’ve got kids.

When Lucy was about two and a half, we were driving along the West Side Highway in Manhattan, and the car conversation invariably turned to the giant gaping hole in the ground where the World Trade Center had been. Not one to let anything slip by uncommented, she pressed us on the issue. As any of you with kids knows, the words “September 11” are in the ether – short of hiding them in the attic, your offspring are going to hear those words, and they’re going to know they’re bad in some way.

I finally told her a very bad man knocked the two towers down, and she mentioned it every time we saw skyscrapers from Brooklyn – not in a scared way, just matter-of-fact. Fast-forward to this Monday morning, and Tessa felt like she had to say something to Lucy about the breaking news, since it was going to come up at school, somehow, someway.

“You remember that really bad man who knocked those towers down in New York, sweetie?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah,” Lucy responded.

“Well, he died last night.”

To which Lucy immediately asked, “Did we die him?”

“Yes,” Tessa said, “we did.”

Lucy has a habit of using nouns for verbs and making shit up on the fly, hence jewels like “the boys were swording each other on the playground” and something heartbreaking like “did we die him”. I found it pretty amazing that her first response upon hearing the news was the assumption Osama bin Laden did not die of natural causes.

Often the way you keep your kid from freaking out about something is to act as if everything is natural and suspected – after all, they get most of their cues from you. When my Auntie Donna died, we did a pretty good job of being honest and loving about it with Lucy, and she responded in kind. But this is different, because we – as a country – went into another country, found someone we’d been looking for, and murdered him. It’s pretty hard to make up a cute parable for that one.

Part of the overwhelming jumble of emotions I experienced Sunday night was unadulterated jubilation. I wanted that motherfucker dead, and I would have been willing to take a crowbar to the back of his head for what he did to New York City and my psyche. But I am devoutly against capital punishment, like to consider myself a pacifist, and Buddhism is the only “religion” that has ever struck me at the soul. So what am I made of, really?

There’s an internet meme called Godwin’s Law, which states that every argument, if carried on long enough, eventually mentions Hitler, in which case the argument itself is rendered irrelevant. But this is one time when mentioning Hitler is warranted, because Bin Laden hits Americans in the same place. He evokes similar rage, gouges at a similar wound. Sure, we nominally would have taken Bin Laden alive, but like Hitler, is that a trial we wanted to experience?

Even the usually-equanimous Jon Stewart admitted last night he was far too close to the subject matter to be rational; instead, he relished Al Qaeda’s demise, saying they might attack us again, but even if they do…

“…you know who won’t see it? Bin Laden. ‘Cause we shot out his eyes, and now he lives in a pineapple under the sea!”

I share his enthusiasm, and to be honest, much of the hand-wringing I’ve seen among my cohorts smacks of weenie-minded namby-pambyism from people who feel massive relief Bin Laden is dead, but still want to feel as though killing people is wrong. Weirdly, I share their unease. And you can bet your ass this paradox will not be lost on our kids.

But maybe that’s just life. You can strive for ideological purity, but when it comes down to it, if you invent a time machine, you kinda have to go back and put a bullet in Hitler’s brain. Perhaps “I don’t believe in killing anybody, but I would kill Bin Laden” isn’t necessarily a logical fallacy. Only question is, how do you explain it to a 6-year-old?


Lucy pontificates from back seat of car, June 2008

0 thoughts on “exceptions prove rules

  1. MarkC

    I am against the death penalty, for the simple reason that our jury system is not infallible and once you kill someone there is not much you can do to set it right when DNA evidence or something else proves we were wrong. I also make the observation that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is a death sentence; we just don’t mix up the chemicals or fire up old sparky.
    In terms of Bin Laden, it is funny when I turned on the news Monday morning at 5 am to get ready for Seal Team PT of all things I heard he was dead. My first thought was like Lucy “Did we die him?” and it took them about a minute or two (seemed longer) to says special ops troops had killed him. My thought was good, he had it coming and there was a sense of satisfaction that we had ended his life rather than a random disease. There is no doubt this guy was a killer and would do whatever he could to kill more Americans, Europeans, etc… That he deemed the infidel. The fact that we tracked him down and got him is a good (not sure I want to call it justice, but it feels good)
    So I really don’t feel overly relativistic here. Happy to read his obituary.
    Now we still need to change how we deal with the counties in the middle east that has lead to all this hostility. Gosh why do not the Egyptians love us? It is not that we were supportive of your push for democracy in the last 3 months that matters, its the previous 6 decades people remember. Unfortunately the world seems to have a slightly longer memory than most Americans. We should remember th … hey look Law & Order is on….

  2. LFMD

    I got off easy in 9/01 because Helen was barely 2 years old. I did not have to explain anything to her, which was a good thing, because I was having a terrible time wrapping my mind around the events myself. Now, she is nearly 12, and FULL of questions about 9/11 and bin Laden. The first question she asked when we told her that bin Laden was dead and had been killed was “why didn’t we arrest him?” I told her that she had asked a good question, and maybe we will find out the answer when more facts emerge. In the end, I was able to tell her that he had fired back at our troops, and he was killed in fireplay. This seems to have satisfied her. Although I am hearing on Morning Joe right now that people are reporting he was unarmed. . .

  3. jp

    I don’t even think of myself as a pacifist but all the reveling over Osama’s death makes me think I am. And thinking more about these Hitler comparisons: those aren’t working for me. State-sponsored extermination of an entire race of people… over 10 million people dead…
    Maybe we can compare the two because we weren’t alive when Hitler was, so we don’t really feel the same hate and loathing. Also, for many Americans, the people Hitler killed were ‘others.’ I’m wonder if the anger and hatred we feel towards Hitler is more retrospective than something Americans felt during the war.
    Not that this is what I told me kids on Monday morning. They didn’t know about the WTC, so we had to give them a quick rundown which ended with, “And we don’t think it’s right to be happy about anyone being killed.”

  4. Bud

    If I understand correctly, the SEAL team’s objective was to take him alive. According to what I’ve heard/read, although OBL was unarmed, he (and/or the woman in the room with him) “resisted” being taken and that’s why they shot him. If that’s true, then it wasn’t murder per se, but self-defense.
    Remember that this happened in seconds (at most) in a dark room near the end of a vicious firefight. As good as the SEALs are, I doubt they knew it was bin Laden. Or that the hands they saw moving rapidly towards them didn’t have weapons in them.
    In retrospect, maybe it was better this way. I mean, better it hadn’t happened AT ALL (and by “it” I mean everything since we first armed and trained the muhajideen back in the 80s). But a trial would have been a HUGE can of worms logistically and might have caused more bloodshed than his death will cause.
    Let’s hope this begins the final chapter of this shoddy story. And lets hope it’s a short, uneventful chapter.

  5. Kelly in NC

    My daughter and her brothers were not yet born when 9/11 happened. (She and her brothers were conceived because 9/11 grounded the flight that would have taken us out of town and made us miss a fertility treatment. The flight was grounded and the fertility appointment was kept and 35 weeks later we had 3 beautiful children. But this is a different story, I suppose…)
    My daughter wanted to know “why are all the people cheering?” when she saw the news on tv. I tried to explain it, but like jp above, I ended by saying that we don’t cheer when anyone dies regardless of how bad they were and that everyone, no matter how bad, has someone who loves him and is sad because he is gone.
    I must admit, in our small conservative town, I fear how that sentiment will be received among her peers. Nonetheless, these are the values I want her to have even though if there was ever an exception to the rule, this would be it.

  6. The Realist

    I wonder how many of the folks who feel joy about OBL’s death realize that the accomplishment of his death was only made possible because we funded special ops to conduct missions that captured people who we then “coerced” into talking and giving us information that we could then use to track down OBL to the opulent lair where he was hiding.
    In other words, are the little bed-wetting liberals going to soften their stance on torture and strong rendition-like interrogation methods or do they still want to naively believe that we, as a country, should be above such measures?
    As for Lucy, you should tell her that we were able to catch the bad man because some of his friends were placed in time out and they tattled on him so we could punish him.
    I’d like to think that we didn’t die him, but instead that he’s being held in a small room and he’s being questioned and coerced in a very deliberate and non-stop fashion and that such questioning and coercion is going to continue in an unwavering fashion for many many years to come. And then we can die him.
    The whole burial at sea has a very Hunt For Red October feel to it, where we made it seem like we blew up the Red October, but instead kept it to study. Either way, you think anyone on Seal Team Six ever has to buy a beer again? I think not.

  7. jp

    To The Realist: This bed-wetting liberal also remembers that we created the monster that was Osama bin Laden. We trained him and befriended him. So if we had avoided that in the first place, we wouldn’t have ended up with Frankenstein.

  8. Lee

    I agree with all of that, Ian. I do think that one distinction- as I’m against the death penalty, too- is that OBL was still planning to kill more people. So to me, it’s self defense- but does that mean we cheer for it? I like to think we’re better than that but then again, this is a primal nerve.
    And a burial at sea at least prevents a shrine from being made.
    The part in me that feels cold is that I don’t really feel like his body was owed any kind of reverence and that’s really contrary to all I feel in my heart with the interconnectedness etc. I don’t care that he didn’t get the proper Muslim burial. I feel, when I’m honest with myself, that he’s lucky that we’re as civilized as we are and that we didn’t drag him through the streets, cheering, burning flags and spitting on him, as may have happened say, in Pakistan, had the situation been different. And thinking that, I think what do we owe him?
    And then I go back to my conflict of humanity but it get drowned out with blah blah blah.
    I guess I still have work to do…

  9. The Realist

    jp, we trained him and befriend him to fight an even bigger enemy and then the former befriended trainee turned on us. You miss that very important piece of the puzzle in your jump from befriending him to being stuck with Frankenstein.
    We live in a complicated world where, occasionally, we have to befriend bad people to get to even worse people. Don’t you watch cop dramas where they pay a snitch junkie to get the bigger fish drug lord? The paid snitch is still a low-life.
    Lee, initially, I didn’t think his body deserved all of the hoopla with a proper burial, but I think it’s less about our superior morality and more a way of heading off future extremism. If an entire faith can turn balistic because someone drew their savior, why pour gasoline on them by defiling the body of their favorite martyr or carrying it through the streets like Hector. Burying him at sea like Maverick did with Goose’s dogtags leaves no place for them to pilgrammage. I don’t think they do much scuba diving.
    For those of you who have conflict about whether the US’s actions conflict with your humanity, then you’re better people than me. I think someone like OBL actually loses his humanity when he does such heinous acts and I didn’t lose a second of sleep worrying about whether his death was moral.

  10. bridget

    I think it’s important to tease out the nuances of the emotions bound up in this event. I’m also against the death penalty. What happened to OBL is not akin to the death penalty. OBL was shot and killed in a combat situation where he resisted capture. Also – the joy many of us have felt has as much, maybe much more, to do with the actions of the US military and its commander. It’s not so simple as cheering death.
    Finally – to the Realist – torture did not lead to this ultimate end. To quote from an Andrew Sullivan post (the whole post details the NYT story on torture’s role in this – http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/05/the-big-lie-.html)
    “The capture of bin Laden was done according to American principles under a president who has outlawed torture. It involved countless individuals carefully piecing together shards of clues and evidence over a number of years – people who are not and never were war criminals, the decent ones, the law-abiding ones, the discreet heroes who will not take to newspaper op-ed pages to justify the unjustifiable or to claim credit for themselves for a victory they had almost nothing to do with. It is these people we should be honoring this week, along with the SEALs who pulled this off and the president who made the final call”

  11. steve ducey

    As someone who saw firsthand the heartache of children and spouses losing loved ones after 9/01 I can proudly state that yes I did cheer the death of someone as heinous as OBL. His actions, and the actions of other terrorists, can only be condemned and, unfortunately, they do not act like rational human beings and have no value for innocent human life thus they need to know that there will be consequences for attempted/completed terrorist acts.
    As a “famous” fraternity brother of mine once stated “two eyes for an unprovoked eye”. Im sick of hearing how the US is to blame for muslim terrorists actions and for our being “hated” in the middle east. We do more than any other country in the world to try and assist/help any other country that endures oppression or a natural disaster so quit with the self-loathing and guilt liberal weenies- the realist is just that- a realist! (and intelligent I might add)

  12. The Realist

    bridget, I do not disagree with you that enhanced interrogation (by itself) was not the sole reason we found OBL. In fact, I will concede that torture techniques may have had little to do with the ultimate success. My broader point, however inarticulately I framed it, was that the capture and killing of OBL was the result of all of the techniques. The sharper point being that the folks who were villified for such techniques should no longer be so villified because they did share in the information gathering process. If anything, over the course of hunting him down, it seems as though our country matured and we refined the process in such a way that we can now claim some moral high ground on how we went about the investigation. Unfortunately, however, I do not believe that we will ever be able to effectively battle army-less enemies like terrorists without some enhanced techniques.
    Check out this link:

  13. Steven Comfort

    OBL intentionally went after non-military targets in multiple countries. He was a rare terrorist in that he had serious brains, money, high-level connections, and a loose but very real network of supporters and fighters. It was especially important that we kill him, if only to let the 99.8% of terrorists who are less-capable than OBL know that if they act, there will potentially be hit squads coming for them — they will have to live the rest of their lives on the run wondering when a couple of helicopters might land in their yard…
    On the morality of it all, I’ll leave you with the opinion my grandfather had on gun control in the U.S.: “I’ll give up my guns when the criminals give up theirs”.

  14. kent

    @Realist — it’s specious to say that since we found OBL because of information obtained through torture, that torture is justified.
    1. That same information may have been gleaned by reasonable interrogation methods. We don’t know that it wouldn’t have been obtained because we didn’t try those methods. See http://www.democracynow.org/2011/5/4/former_military_interrogator_matthew_alexander_despite for the opinion of one of our interrogators in Iraq.
    2. That argument has no moral bounds. Suppose we found Bin Laden because we killed someone’s child in front of them and threatened to kill the rest of his family? Would that now be justified? What if we gassed whole villages to get what we wanted?
    What you — and a lot of other conservatives — are saying is that the ends justify the means. I thought that it was a settled precept of human morality that the ends DO NOT justify the means. What’s next — ‘I was only following orders’ is A-OK too?

  15. kent

    … and I would have been way, way happier had we captured the man and tried him in front of a jury.
    We still don’t have the whole story, and we’ve been feed a lot of misinformation already. At first he was armed and firing at our troops, using a woman as a human shield. Then, they said he was unarmed and didn’t hide behind a woman. And he was killed with a double tap to the head. Sounds more like a gangland slaying to me.
    I don’t care who it is. Either the rule of law matters or it doesn’t. This whole business is justified by the fact that we’re the USA, and we do whatever the fuck feels good. Ironically this act on Obama’s behalf makes me lose respect for him, even as it increases everyone else’s respect for him.
    Flying un-authorized into another country, executing people, and then dumping their bodies in the ocean? Makes you feel proud doesn’t it?

  16. The Realist

    Kent, you are a great person from everything I’ve read and gleaned from this blog and Ian’s words about you. You’re also very lucky that there are men like our last two presidents and Seal Team Six around to keep you safe and sound . . . and naive.
    If I have to explain the justification of a double tap shot to the head to you, pardon me while I first SLAP my own forehead and pause to get over my disbelief. Nevermind that it’s a textbook way to put someone down. Nevermind that it’s arguably more humane because it ensures a quick death. I’m actually impressed that the professional did not empty his entire clip.
    Let me address your points.
    1. First, I would like to believe that the U.S. policy on interrogation does not start out with torture. I would like to think that the first person in the room is a “good cop” who tries to work in a pleasant or diplomatic fashion. So, for you to suggest there are other ways, I’m going to go out on a limb and presume that those other ways were attempted. It is problematic dealing with people who are not afraid to die. Torture alone will not break them. Trying to build rapport will not break them. At least not in a timely fashion.
    2. If a man would hold his tongue regarding information while someone threatened his child or family, then he’s not a real father and not a real man. However, I will concede that’s an unfortunate casualty of war. If I had a kid and someone threatened to shoot them, I’m giving up secrets.
    Put it another way, if you knew that you could capture Bin Laden and prevent another 9/11 type disaster by killing an enemy combatant’s child in front of him, my only question for you is this:
    Would you aim for the heart or the head?
    You don’t have to answer because you have the luxury of not having to answer. You have the luxury to debate the morality of it. If you were in the position, however, to single-bulletly lop off the head of the snake that keeps the country and the world in constant fear, do you think you could make that choice? I would hope I would be able to take aim and fire. Luckily, there are no news reports that our government did anything of the sort, so your proposal is dead in the water. Get it, “dead in the water”?
    It’s a scary world outside of the theater, Kent. You should thank God that men like Team Seal Six are around to make those difficult nightmare-inducing decisions so that you can live free and write show tunes.
    I am not making it personal to you. Those men make it free for all of us to watch sports, watch American Idol, go to Disney, cheer for our alma maters, and debate like we do in this forum.
    Even though they are doing their jobs, you know that it must haunt them if they hurt or accidentally kill a child or an innocent in the execution of their missions. What is miraculous to me is that there were purportedly 12 to 13 kids in the home at the time of the raid. Not one of them was hurt. I read that the woman was used as a human shield and that she reached for a weapon, but was only shot in the leg.
    When it comes to war, no country on the planet goes out of their way to ensure the safety of innocent people like the Yanks. There are American soldiers who die because of “friendly fire” all the time. War sucks and shit happens. But our country actually prosecutes and punishes people who get out of bounds during war. People got jail time for taking pictures of prisoners. Not killing them. Not even hurting them. But doing things that freshmen pledges go through every semester.
    So, please, please, please get off of your naive high horse on this one and lay off the SEALS. Even Charlie Sheen was a SEAL.

  17. vfw

    “realist,” it would be easier to take you seriously if you hadn’t so obviously learned everything you know about the world from bad tv shows, video games and movies. and foxnews, i’m sure.
    put your money where your mouth is and sign up for the armed forces. they need people now like never before.
    if you’re too old for that, at least put down the remote, the joystick and the mouse and do something useful, like volunteer at a v.a. hospital or for the red cross.
    you’ll be surprised how much your perspective will change after you’ve spent some time with people who actually know what war is.

  18. xuxE

    well if justice is basically taking away a criminal’s freedom and ability to do more harm in a way that is proportionate to their crime, then justice for a serial killer or terrorist is either being locked away forever in prison or dying.
    i’d generally prefer the former, but will take the latter if that’s the only available justice.
    i read Bin Laden’s death as the only possible justice since it was ridiculously unlikely he would end up in jail.
    last time i felt this way was when Jesse Helms died.

  19. The Realist

    VFW, I would be floored if you could point to even one U.S. veteran who is not happy that we bagged OBL.

  20. Public Servant in DC

    Realist – I take issue with your generalizations about U.S. veterans being universally happy that we ‘bagged’ OBL (UBL in our community.)
    That there is a justifiable sense of pride in our forces and intelligence professionals for successfully completing this mission is undeniable. To assume that pride does not come with a sense of unease that you attribute to ‘bed-wetting liberals’ is asinine and insulting to the very people that you claim to be praising.
    On Tuesday I attended a debrief from one of the leaders that was in the situation room as the event happened. There were a few hundred people in attendance, many of them veterans. There was no applause at the mention of UBL’s death or the detailing of the way it occurred. Applause was reserved for praising the men and women that supported the action and enabled it’s success. We understand that this is an action will have consequences and increase the likelihood that our loved ones and compatriots will be in harm’s way. War is hell and something that should not be celebrated. We serve so that war can be avoided and/or ended as quickly as possible and with as little loss of life as possible. To assume that there is universal happiness at a death – ANY death – is to discount the basic humanity of the people that serve to keep you safe.
    As an aside, your sense of certainty about the efficacy of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) betray your reliance on right-leaning media. The facts are far more ambiguous and there is ample evidence to support a view that EITs are far less effective at providing reliable intelligence that standard interrogation techniques.
    Finally, let me leave you with a thought:
    One of the techniques used to rationalize actions that have some element of moral ambiguity is to dehumanize the target. It is much easier to fight someone if you do not think of them as your equal, but can find some reason to rationalize that they are sub-human. One of the more troubling aspects of political discourse in America today is the degree to which that technique is being used to tear down those who disagree politically. Your use of labels such as ‘liberal’ is just such a de-humanization. It betrays a fundamental lack of respect for those you are arguing against and a need to feel superior. It also reflects a lack of willingness to compromise or even listen to what the other side is saying. It is a technique that has gained prevalence in the last 20 years as politically astute politicians have leveraged it to create divisions in our society and capitalize on them to seize power. It is certainly not isolated to any one political party or movement, but the political right in this country has made it their bread and butter since the ascent of Karl Rove as a political strategist. I encourage you (everyone, for that matter) to examine your own participation in that trend and whether it truly reflects the way you want to carry yourself in public. It is an fundamental American value that all men are created equal. Do the talking heads and politicians you listen to reflect that value? Do you reflect that value?

  21. kent

    @Realist — your entire response to me is patently offensive, morally bankrupt, and again, completely specious.
    I know what a double tap to the head is for. What I don’t know is why it was used on an unarmed man.
    Like vfw said, watching ’24’ doesn’t make you an expert on anything except violence porn.

  22. oliver

    If anybody deserves a trial, then everybody deserves a trial. Staging a big trial seems more commensurate to the crime of terrorism than to just shoot one man dead. Of course, we’ve also destroyed Iraq, trampled Afghanistan and tortured a lot of people, but none of that was about the Twin Towers or the rest of 9/11 in the way a trial would be. What was the value of killing OBL anyway besides revenge? I’d have liked just to have heard him say he did it. Revenge is hardly the be-all and end-all of civilized life. Think of South Africa.

  23. The Realist

    Kent and Public Servant, you both make my point. In fact, Public Servant, you don’t even distinguish your position from mine very much. Given the choice of having OBL dead or captured versus alive and on the run, I suggested all veterans would be happy that he’s dead. You simply said they had a muted reaction because they fear that retaliation may follow and that war is hell and no death should be celebrated. My point is that I still think they’re glad he’s dead or captured. Of course there is going to be retaliation. Here’s a little secret–those loons were going to attack us again anyway. I think of the military like those coaches who get doused with Gatorade at the end of the football game, but who still yell at their players because there is still technically time on the clock and the game isn’t over. Killing OBL didn’t end the war on terror and it may have been more symbolic than practical. Yet, I think capturing and/or killing him was better than not doing so. I would expect the military to be on extra high alert and I am glad they didn’t react like Auburn fans rolling the trees in Toomer’s Corner. So my “happy” and your muted reaction and concern over what will happen next are essentially the same thing–the military is glad he’s gone.
    Kent, I didn’t post as The Moralist or Mr. Kumbabya. I posted as The Realist. If you’re OBL, sleeping in a fortified stronghold and you are attacked by Navy Seals, you have only one acceptable reaction available to you to avoid being killed: raise your hands and surrender. Unarmed means unarmed and no immediate threat. If you have weapons within your reach or at your immediate disposal and you choose to use a woman as a human shield, I don’t consider you unarmed. Unarmed, waving a white flag with your hands in the air is something entirely different. Had OBL been shot under THOSE circumstances, I would agree with you.
    Now, if you wish to take the discussion from the context of the real world into a more theoretical or academic type of setting, then I think we may find way more common ground than you think.
    In the real world, however, we are a country who avenges those who bring us pain and destruction. As the folks in Hiroshima how the bombing of Pearl Harbor went. My points throughout the comment section were not to debate how or why we got here. My points were to say that the killing of OBL was the result of making lots of real world choices that may have been morally and legally ambiguous, yet resulted in getting the guy we wanted. So, if you want to rejoice in the killing of OBL, you all have to look in the mirror to see if you’re happy at how we had to get there and you have to acknowledge that it wasn’t all done in a way that would make you feel warm and fuzzy like a by-the-books thorough Law & Order investigation on the television. Some of the ways we got here would make you cringe. I’m not even in support of the enhanced interrogation techniques, if they can be avoided.
    For me, personally, Kent, to use your point about the show “24”, I’m not certain of whether to get too excited because I don’t know if we’re in hour 10 of the show or hour 23. Like the military personnel Public Servant described, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and feel as though I won’t fully exhale until it does.
    I am glad the boogey man is gone, though. If we can’t agree on that, then we’ll just have to disagree.


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