IPS Blog

This Week in OtherWords: May 1, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Jo Comerford and Donald Kaul weigh in on the government’s reversal of sequester-driven cuts that inconvenienced air travelers as other budget woes hurt children, the elderly, and the unemployed.

Below, you’ll find a clickable summary of all our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. Be sure to visit our blog, where we’ve been running bonus Jim Hightower commentaries. This week, you can catch his views on George W. Bush’s shiny new library.

If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. The Internet Racket / Timothy Karr
    Phone and cable providers are reaping obscene profit margins from their dominance of the Internet market.
  2. The Path We Should Follow after Syria Crosses the Red Line / Don Kraus
    Working closely with the United Nations could help Obama avoid the horrendous mistakes Bush and Clinton made.
  3. Banking on the Poor / Andrew Korfhage
    Payday borrowers are trapped in a spiral of revolving loans and compounding penalties.
  4. Useless Baggage / Jo Comerford
    With their big fuss over aviation punctuality, lawmakers make it clear that they’re not feeling the pain felt by the majority of Americans.
  5. Flying Over an Act of Monumental Stupidity / Donald Kaul
    The great victims of this sequester will be our children, the unemployed, the poor and the elderly — all groups with feeble lobbies or no lobbies at all.
  6. Austerity Will Leave Us Crying ’96 Tears’ / Sam Pizzigati
    But America’s wealthy don’t seem to mind.
  7. A Parenting Priority / Jill Richardson
    Even when the kids complain, you’re doing right by them when you cook dinner and eat together.
  8. Narco-State Building / Jim Hightower
    After 11 years of U.S. military operations, Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s poppies and 75 percent of the planet’s heroin.
  9. The War on Sex / William A. Collins
    Despite declines in teen pregnancy and abortion rates, some conservatives aren’t ready to celebrate.
  10. Obama and the Red Line / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
    Obama and the Red Line, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Obama and the Red Line, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

U.S. Explores Military Engagement With Burma’s Brutal Military

“The European Union revoked its economic and political sanctions against Burma on Monday,” reports Erica Kinetz for the Associated Press. She continues:

Australia revoked its travel and financial sanctions in June 2012. . . . The US has moved more slowly than the European Union and Australia in normalizing relations, which some business groups argue puts US investors at a competitive disadvantage.

Even more disturbing (emphasis added) . . .

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun told Congress Thursday that the US is “looking at ways to support nascent military engagement” with Burma, as way of encouraging “further political reforms.”

Military “engagement” with the army behind Burma’s brutal junta that officially lasted 49 years (until 2011)? Besides, isn’t that sort of putting the cart before the horse? In response, writes Ms. Kinetz, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division said

… military engagement was “clearly premature.” Human Rights Watch says the military continues to target civilians and engage in torture, sexual slavery and extrajudicial killings.

“Why is there a presumption the Burmese military wants to reform?” he said. “What’s the evidentiary basis for that? Is this the US government and international community just seeing what they want to see?”

Burma as Capable of Scapegoating Muslims as Anybody

In a New York Times op-ed titled Are Myanmar’s Hopes Fading?, Aung Zaw, founder of Irrawaddy, reminded us about clashes last year “between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanm [that] killed at least 180 people and displaced more than 120,000, mostly Rohingyas. Last month, violence spread to central Myanmar, killing dozens and leaving more than 13,000 homeless.” Many, he adds, “fear that the deadly anti-Muslim riots are no accident but the product of an effort led by army hard-liners to thwart both the reforms and Myanmar’s opening to the world.”

… I have no doubt that national officials bear some responsibility, and that the violence suggests a power struggle within the elite. Infighting between hard-line and moderate forces in the government, which took power two summers ago under the moderate general Thein Sein, is no secret. His cabinet, Parliament and the army remain dominated by holdovers from the regime of the former dictator Gen. Than Shwe. Many are resisting President Thein Sein’s reforms.

The generals who ruled the country for five decades control much of the nation’s wealth, and some are close to Chinese interests that stand to be eclipsed if Myanmar deepens economic ties to the West. The anti-Muslim violence is a useful distraction from Burmese grievances against China, whose heavy-handed economic activities have bred resentments across much of Southeast Asia.

Muslims, long a convenient scapegoat and exponentially more so since the advent of the likes of Al Qaeda, have become a casualty of hidebound forces attempting to retain power and their share of what China invests in Burma.

Try Boston Marathon Bomber for His Crimes, Not His Religion or Nationality

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the American political environment is increasingly moving toward placing Islam itself on public trial, not the actions of those who committed the crime. Mainstream American media outlets are increasingly focusing on the suspect’s faith and whether he was radicalized here at home or abroad in Russia. Fox News’ Sean Hannity criticized the Obama administration on his show for not using the term “war on terror” as he placed the “rise of radical Islamists” as the main threat to America’s national security. His guest conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan warned that “what we see is the rise or the resurrection of Islam.” He also added that the “great objective of Islam in that part of the world is to drive out the foreigners, the Jews, the Christians, Americans and imperialists.” Buchanan continued in an angry accusatory tone that “they have one God but Allah whom they are following to create the great Islamic world.”

Needless to say that the statements made by Hannity and Buchanan regarding Islam and Muslims are false, derogatory and are dangerous.

The mainstream American news media has then shifted its attention from the criminal act itself to the ethnicity and the religion of the suspects, in trying to find answers as to what pushed the bombers to commit their crimes. That might appear to be “logical” from the perspective of those who think that the “terrorist “designation is reserved for Muslims only.

But this type of logic is at best racist because it seeks to find evidence to support preconceived notions that terrorists or “jihadists,” a term often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist,” can only be Muslim. This is also akin to saying that other criminals or terrorists who are of other faiths cannot be true terrorists or that their criminal acts — such as mass shooting in a movie theater, or in a school, or a in a Sikh Temple, where scores of innocent people were massacred –cannot be described as terrorism.

Spin-off stories also emerged about concepts that are hardly understood by the average American about “Jihad” or “Radical Jihadists” or “Sharia law.” They feed the American stereotype of a beast — its new evil empire — that it should seek to destroy. Such public discussions have enhanced the public misconception about the foreignness of Islam or Muslims.

The public treatment of Muslims who commit crimes or terrorism acts is often different from those who are charged with the same or even worse crimes and happen to be Christian. The religions of the shooters in Sandy Hook massacre or the mass killing in the Colorado movie theater or the Sikh temple was never a public issue. None of those voices that try to vilify Islam attempted to ask the same questions about Christianity, the religion of those who committed those crimes, which at any event should not be the issue to start with.

Meanwhile some members of Congress, along with conservative pundits, objected to the Obama administration decision to charge the surviving suspect of the Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tasarnaev, in US civilian courts. They also objected to reading the suspect his Miranda warning, which gives him the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Instead, they wanted him to be charged with terrorism as a military combatant and in a military tribunal citing public safety concerns or the “ticking bomb scenario.”

The statement also cited the US Supreme Court decision Hamdi Vs. Rumsfeld in support of their argument

What the statement neglected to mention, however, is that Hamdi Vs. Rumsfeld was a sound defeat for the Bush administration, in which the Supreme Court ruled that government has no right to detain an American citizen without meaningful due process of the law. The Boston Marathon suspect, moreover, is an American citizen and arrested on American soil, not on a foreign battlefield. The government ended up not charging Yaser Esam Hamdi with any crime and was released to Saudi Arabia on the condition that he renounce his American citizenship. It is clear therefore that there are people here in America who feel that when it comes to crimes or acts of terrorism that have been committed by Muslims, we should be changing the US constitution around — as if the United States is a third-world banana republic — so they can be convicted regardless of their constitutional rights.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: aliyounes98@gmail.com and on Twitter at @clearali.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (4/26)

Iraq’s War for Terrorists Sets up Branch Campus in Syria

Of especially grave concern is the movement into Syria of bomb makers and military tacticians. As Iraq’s jihad was for much of the past decade, Syria’s is now becoming the “destination jihad” du jour.

Iraq: Where Terrorists Go to School, Jessica Stern, the New York Times

Don’t Give Them Any Ideas!

[Novelist John] Le Carré is not a hunter himself, but he nodded at the people he knew and mounted a casual and running defense of fox hunting, as if he were doing color commentary from the 18th hole at the Masters. It’s an ancient part of the rural culture, he said. It’s egalitarian in this area (some 300 miles west-southwest of London), not an upper-class diversion. … “At least they aren’t hunting that poor goddamn thing with drones.”

John le Carré Has Not Mellowed With Age, Dwight Garner, the New York Times

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Islamist terrorists provoke the governments they oppose into responding in ways that seem to prove that these governments want to humiliate or harm Muslims. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and “extraordinary rendition” have become for Muslim youth symbols of the United States’ belligerence and hypocrisy.

Mind Over Martyr, Jessica Stern, Foreign Affairs (PDF of entire article)

Putting Jihadists on the Couch

Self-awareness is not a characteristic of most terrorists. And to be effective those fighting them have to try to understand them better than they understand themselves.

The Terrorist Tipping Point: What Pushed the Tsarnaev Brothers to Violence?, Christopher Dickey, the Daily Beast

Nuclear Weapons No Shortcut to National Security

While the United States would like to be able to rely more on its European allies, many experts doubt that even the strongest among them, Britain and France, could carry out their part of another Libya operation now, and certainly not in a few years. Both are struggling to maintain their own nuclear deterrents as well as mobile, modern armed forces. The situation in Britain is so bad that American officials are quietly urging it to drop its expensive nuclear deterrent.

“Either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner,” a senior American official said.

Shrinking Europe Military Spending Stirs Concern, Steven Erlanger, the New York Times

You Don’t Know Squat

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

TachelesIt was breathtaking. We emerged from the forest on the outskirts of Moscow and saw, looming above the tall grass, an enormous ruined palace.

It was 1985, and I was studying Russian at the Pushkin Institute. We heard a rumor about a grand edifice, the unfinished palace of Catherine the Great, that was moldering not far from where we were staying in Moscow. We took the subway to the end of the line, tramped through a forest and a field until we came upon the ruins of the great hall. The walls were still standing, and we walked the length of the building, avoiding the shrubs and underbrush and hoping to come across a small piece of history in a broken chair or scrap of wallpaper. We didn’t know that the Russian empress capriciously ordered her Tsaritsyno dismantled in 1785, when everything was done except for the interior decorations. The ruins, minus any of the accouterments, lay around for the next 200 years.

Enough of Tsaritsyno remained in the mid-1980s that you could more or less understand the scale and grandeur of the undertaking. But what was truly amazing was to happen upon this complex as if discovering the ruins of a long-forgotten Mayan temple in the jungles of Guatemala. There were no signs, no paths, no kiosks hawking souvenirs. It had simply become part of the landscape.

I experienced this same feeling in March 1990 when I encountered Tacheles in East Berlin. Originally a department store built in 1907-8 in the Jewish quarter of Berlin, the enormous five-story shopping arcade stretched from Friedrichstrasse to Oranienburger Strasse. Its tenure as a commercial space lasted only a few years prior to World War I. After that, it was a showroom for an electrical company, a central office for the Nazi SS, and a prison. During the communist period, the official trade union took over the structure, but the building gradually fell into disrepair.

In 1990, this glorious ruin was a perfect place to squat. There was a culture of squatting in East Berlin even during the communist era. Given the shortage of official university housing, students would frequently take over abandoned flats, mirroring the squat culture on the other side of the Wall in Kreuzberg. The Germans used the word instandbesetzen, a combination of renovating and occupying. When the Wall fell, squat culture expanded exponentially as people from East and West took over abandoned properties in East Berlin. In 1990, for instance, I spent an evening at one of the squat cafés in Prenzlauer Berg where I ate Indian food and listened to the Talking Heads, while cigarette smoke and political conversation swirled around me.

Tacheles — the squatters renamed the old department store after the Yiddish word for “straight talk” — was a much bigger undertaking. When I walked down Oranienberger Strasse and came upon this enormous structure — only a month after the first squatters took up residence to prevent impending demolition — I was amazed at all the activity going on inside. Artists were setting up studios. A movie theater was being restarted. There were cafes, performance spaces, and what seemed like unlimited room to create an alternative society.

Tacheles, February 2013

Tacheles, February 2013

And now in 2013, I returned to Berlin only a few months after the end of Tacheles. For 22 years, the punks and anarchists and hippies and artists and squatters of all types had hung on, sometimes quarreling, often creating art and music, always partying. But the writing — as opposed to the graffiti — was on the wall for squatting culture in Berlin. In 2009, police kicked out the anarcho-punk residents of the last open squat in the city at Brunnenstrasse 183. Tacheles hung on for a few more years before the owner HSH Nordbank finally evicted the remaining artists in September 2012. According to news reports, “before police arrived, two black-clad artists played a funeral march but bailiffs were able to clear the building without resistance.” It was a quiet end for what had been a bold and loud experiment.

Other squats have survived in different forms. In Prenzlauer Berg, I met several former squatters who now had titles to their apartments. In the same area, I happened on Adventure Playground, an innovative playground that started in April 1990. The wild area features an open fire, a forge, and a sand pit where children build their own structures (and destroy them). Through this remarkable oasis in the middle of the city, the spirit of pushing boundaries is being instilled in the next generation.

Then there’s the House of Democracy and Human Rights. In 1989, the East German political opposition demanded and received a piece of prime real estate at Friedrichstrasse 165, a former Party building. After the opposition did so poorly in East Germany’s first and only free elections in March 1990 — which was dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — they fell further to the margins and lost control of their iconic location.

I was delighted, however, to visit the new location of the rechristened House of Democracy and Human Rights. In 1990, I could skip from one office to the next, interviewing most of the inhabitants in one day. In 2013, I was astounded by the number of organizations in the three linked buildings, so many that it would take several weeks of interviews to visit them all.

So, one door closes, and another one opens. The creative chaos of Tacheles has departed the shell of its building on Oranienberger Strasse, but its soul lives on in a 3-D version on line.

And that unfinished palace of Catherine the Great? It’s now finally finished, thanks to a controversial renovation project by the city of Moscow. I haven’t been back to Tsaritsyno since 1985. I’m sure that it’s a very beautiful complex of buildings, even if it lacks precise historical fidelity.

But there’s nothing like the feeling of urban discovery, when you stumble upon an awe-inspiring structure that makes you feel, if only for a few moments, as if you just discovered a lost city, a vanished civilization.

Inside-outside Strategy on Wall Street Tax

Cross-Posted with The Huffington Post

The International Monetary Fund is accustomed to rallies outside their Washington, D.C., headquarters during their annual meetings. What was different this past weekend was that the activists on the outside and several high-profile government and financial industry speakers on the inside were calling for the same thing: a financial transaction tax.

Outside, around a thousand activists called on world leaders to adopt a small tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives that could raise massive revenue for jobs, climate, global health, and other public investments.

Inside, in a somber basement auditorium, the IMF hosted a debate on the same topic. The uniform on the outside was a green Robin Hood hat. On the inside, it was a charcoal gray suit. In both spaces, however, there was the sense that the financial transaction tax is gaining momentum and credibility.



The rally, sponsored by the Robin Hood Tax campaign, was not the largest to date, but it appeared to be the most diverse, with strong representation from labor, environmental, and global health groups, including National Nurses United, National Peoples Action, Friends of the Earth, Amalgamated Transit Union, Jobs with Justice, and Health GAP.

Inside the IMF, European Commission official Manfred Bergmann reported on the strong progress on his side of the Atlantic, where 11 EU governments are negotiating the final details of a coordinated financial transaction tax. The proposal on the table would tax stock and bond trades at 0.1 percent and derivatives trades at 0.01 percent. Expected revenues: as much as $45 billion per year. If the United States adopted a similar tax, it would raise an estimated $750 million to $1 billion over 10 years, Bergmann said.

Of course the IMF event was not without opposition voices. The strongest was Luc Frieden, the finance minister of Luxembourg, where a light regulatory and tax regime has boosted the size of the banking sector relative to GDP to a level similar to that of Cyprus. Frieden is particularly upset about the potential cross-border effects of the proposed EU tax.

Residents of non-participating countries will have to pay the tax if they trade with financial institutions in one of the 11 participating countries or if they trade financial instruments issued in one of those countries. The UK government has just launched a legal attack on the plan over this extra-territorial issue, a move Frieden applauded.

Avinash Persaud, a former senior executive of JPMorgan, UBS, and State Street banks, noted the irony of the UK’s complaint. Britain’s own Stamp Duty, introduced hundreds of years ago, is also extra-territorial. Trades of shares in British firms are taxed at 0.5 percent — no matter who’s doing the trading. An estimated 40 percent of the revenue comes from non-UK residents.

In a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew also raised concerns about the extra-territorial impacts of the EU proposal. He failed to mention that U.S. investors have been subjected to the UK Stamp Duty and other countries’ transaction taxes for some time now — without the sky falling.

Nor did Lew acknowledge the many ways in which U.S. laws impose costs on non-U.S. entities. Take, for example, the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires foreign financial institutions to report information about financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers to the IRS. Foreign banks have also complained about the extra-territorial implications of the Volcker Rule, the provision of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation which seeks to prevent deposit-taking banks from making bets with their own capital.

At the IMF, Persaud also scoffed at the Luxembourger’s position that any transaction tax should be global: “Samuel Johnson said ‘patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.’ In this case, internationalism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”

Indeed, many countries are already raising significant revenue from national financial transaction taxes. In addition to the UK, Persaud listed South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Switzerland, and Brazil among the countries that already have some form of the tax. He estimated their combined revenues at around $23 billion per year. Beyond the revenue benefits, Persaud argued that the current lack of taxation on trading activities creates “incentives to build edifices of value that are actually mirages” and can cause systemic risk.

The IMF event was the latest example of the Fund playing a constructive role in the debate. It didn’t start out that way. In September 2009, the G20 assigned the IMF to prepare a report on “how the financial sector could make a fair and substantial contribution toward paying for any burdens associated with government interventions to repair the banking system.” Initially, then-IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said financial transaction taxes weren’t even worth studying. In his view, such taxes were a “simplistic idea” that wouldn’t work.

But in response to international public pressure, the Fund agreed not only to include the issue in their analysis but also to engage in civil society consultations. In the IMF report for the G20 leaders, they made clear their preference for other forms of financial sector taxation, particularly a “financial activities tax” on bank profits and compensation. Nevertheless, they also acknowledged that transaction taxes were administratively feasible and could raise significant revenue. And in a follow-up technical paper, they acknowledged that most G-20 countries, including Brazil, India, and South Africa, have already implemented some form of FTT. In October 2012, current IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said that the EU progress on a coordinated financial transaction tax was “clearly a good move.”

At the debate, the Director of the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department, Carlo Cottarelli, stressed that the IMF would still be pushing their “beloved” financial activities tax. But he admitted that since the IMF’s 2010 report to the G20, there hasn’t been much progress on that. “The momentum behind FTT was so strong, it was hard to turn in another direction. Sometimes life just isn’t fair,” he said with a laugh.

Follow Sarah Anderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Anderson_IPS

This Week in OtherWords: April 24, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Jill Richardson looks at the Texas factory explosion in the context of whether we should be using so much nitrogen fertilizer in the first place and William A. Collins and I review recent progress toward ending the prohibition on pot.

Here’s a clickable summary of our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. A Reasonable Food Fight / Ryan Alexander
    President Obama’s efforts to overhaul the nation’s global food aid system are sensible.
  2. Our Biggest Terrorist Threat / Marc Morial
    Senate inaction on guns was inexcusable in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
  3. Shameless Bipartisanship / Richard Long
    Two once-prominent politicians who disgraced themselves in sex scandals are angling for a return to public life.
  4. Saber-Rattling on the Korean Peninsula / Justin Bresolin
    Aggressive posturing only increases the likelihood of a dangerous miscalculation.
  5. Stopping the Senseless Carnage / Donald Kaul
    Could we just cut back on warfare a little?
  6. Tracking CEO Pay / Sam Pizzigati
    The most important executive compensation indicator is the gap between what CEOs and their workers are paid.
  7. The Price of Our Fertilizer Addiction / Jill Richardson
    Compared to the lifetime of grieving ahead for the people of West, Texas, a few years of reduced crop yields is a small price to pay for converting from “conventional” to organic farming.
  8. Making Poverty a Crime / Jim Hightower
    Jailing indigents for debts costs the courts way more than the fines they owe and violates the Constitution.
  9. The Pot Prohibition Runs Its Course / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    Now that most Americans support the legalization of marijuana, some Republicans back the right of states to stop banning it.
  10. Holy Smokes / Khalil Bendib
    Holy Smokes, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Holy Smokes, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

France Down With Same-Sex Marriage and Adoption

In a landmark decision Tuesday the French parliament approved a controversial bill by a vote of 331-225 allowing same-sex couples in France to marry and adopt children.

Opponents and supporters alike filled the streets of Paris in past months with one demonstration bringing upwards of 340,000 people. This particular protest ended in blasts of tear gas fired by soldiers as right-wing extremists incited violence amongst the crowd and charged police in attempts to make a break for the Presidential Palace.

This week saw renewed violence as attacks on gay couples spiked and legislators were threatened. On Monday National Assembly president and avid supporter of the gay marriage bill, Claude Bartelone, was sent an envelope filled with gunpowder.

Protests are only expected to continue as the bill must now go through the constitutional council and finally be signed by President Francois Hollande to become written into law.

France is now the 9th country in Europe and 14th in the world to legalize gay marriage. This once religiously conservative country has set an example for progressive social reform and the struggle for human equality.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Deposed Central African Republic President Bozize’s Loyalists Not Going Quietly

Reverberations from the March 24 coups in the Central African Republic continue to sweep through the small landlocked country. A recent increase in deadly clashes between President Michel Djotodia’s rebel forces and remaining loyalists from the overrun president, Francois Bozize, have alarmed the international community.

Regional leaders are gathered in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena to discuss the progress of a peace plan that was to be implemented by Djotodia’s new government but has obviously failed. The meeting will also determine if additional troops will be sent to the C.A.R. to assist in stabilizing the country and bring an end to the fighting.

Reports say that 13 people died and 52 were wounded in mid-April as fighting was at its worst in the C.A.R. capital of Bangui. Djotodia places the blame on residents and the deposed president. “Bozize prepared a civil war and gave the youth weapons of war and machetes,” he said. “This armed neighborhood has always opposed the presence of our men.” These are the men who have terrorized, tortured, and killed civilians since their rise to power.

International aid groups in the country say that members of the Seleka rebel movement also continue to loot local homes and businesses, instigate violence, and recruit children to their ranks. Angry mobs of Central Africans formed in protest to Seleka’s behavior, leading to the sharp increase in violence between civilians and the new leadership.

Because of the instability, scores of Central Africans have fled to surrounding countries for safety. Over 37,000 have crossed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and Chad, hosted by local populations and refugee camps. UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards has called on the Seleka authorities to end the violence against civilians and restore security so that aid can reach those who need it, including the 173,000 internally displaced people in the country.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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