The Laws of Hell

by: FireTag

January 21, 2012

The laws that govern normal behavior on earth (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill”) do not apply in heaven, because there they are unnecessary. The laws that govern normal behavior on earth also do not apply in hell, because there no one can hope to keep them. I am not the first to notice that “war is hell”.

Following both World War I and World War II, the coalition of winning nations attempted to reorganize the world under new laws. Borders of empires were redrawn, with new nations called into being for the convenience of the moment, not always paying much attention to the historical identities of the people living there, or to the economic viability of their futures. My own family’s links to military service (to the best of my knowledge) began at that time with a paternal grandfather who marched around Russia as part of an allied expeditionary force trying to keep the White Russians from being overwhelmed by the Red Russians after the fall of the Czar.

In many ways, this was what always happens after a decisive war; the winners always make the new rules and claim some “divine right” to do so. However, this was the first century in which the battlefields really ranged over the whole planet. Alexander the Great didn’t really conquer the whole world — the Chinese and Mesoamerican civilizations would have disagreed, for example. And, while the Napoleonic Wars did include  naval combat in every significant military theatre, the populations of the major combatants never permitted the massive land engagements seen in Europe to occur in many other parts of the globe.

So the 20th Century was the first time that a world-wide “monopoly of force” was possible. And in earthly civilization, it is monopoly of force that backs, defines, and makes possible the rule of law. (This is not heaven, after all.)

Consider civilian law. Would laws be obeyed by all if police forces were abolished? Are laws obeyed by all if people believe that police FORCE will not be brought to bear effectively to stop disobedience?

How that monopoly of force is subdivided and controlled differs from community to community, of course. Wheat and Tares threads, such as this one on war crimes, contain their share of political debates about how that control should be exercised, but that there is a connection of monopoly of force to civilian law seems pretty self-evident.

Therefore, when the control of any monopoly of force is itself violently contested, either within a “community” — as in the case of a civil war or rebellion — or between communities having their own separate identities, histories, and power structures, we enter a situation that fits uncomfortably with notions of civilian law.

Things do not automatically descend into total chaos; there is still the possibility of a power structure, even in hell. And so, “laws of war” can exist even during conflict. They can even be codified by the winners of past conflicts, even if everyone knows that those laws will be retroactively redefined by the winners of the current conflict.

Such codification can actually serve to deter violations, if only because the leadership of each competing power structure understands that they could end up on the losing side of the contest. And such deterrence can serve an important moral value in opposing the descent into chaos. However, such deterrence has its limitations, precisely because the winners can (and do) often grant themselves absolution. You might lose, but you might win, too.

So the strategic and tactical particularities of a given conflict tend to produce unpredictable changes in the laws of war that get ratified or rejected afterward by the winning community according to its own values, needs, and interests. The ending of the World Wars thus led many to hope that the existence of a single winning community would be powerful enough to extend the sphere of “civilian” law into universally agreed “laws of war”. First the League of Nations, and then the United Nations, was embodied to substitute a supranational authority that could act to impose an effective, global monopoly of force. The United Nations, in particular, made its most powerful institution the Security Council, enshrining the idea of “collective security” as an ideal superior to national self-defense (though it could only be so enshrined by allowing porous self- and allied-defense exceptions to continue to exist in international law).

But these global monopolies of force collapsed rather quickly. The League of Nations was certainly a joke after Italy (one of the key members of the winning coalition in WWI) invaded and conquered Ethiopia without the League intervening to stop it. National interests of France and England in (futilely) trying to keep Italy from siding with Germany in the future made the supposed police department impotent to respond.

As a vehicle for collective security, the United Nations was able to respond to aggression only where the national interests of the Western and Communist blocks coincided, and that was largely over by the time of the Korean War (a war that taught all permanent members of the Security Council to not boycott sessions of the Council, thereby missing the opportunity to cast a veto). Nations have largely realized that they can ignore or reinterpret entire strings of Security Council resolutions as they wish; enforcement power ultimately rests with the national military and economic powers just as if we were fighting plain old national wars.

What has certainly changed, however, is the amount of lip service nations pay to the codification of the laws of war, even if the spirit of that code is completely ignored. Indeed, it is at least arguable that the world has been in near-continuous states of war since shortly after the end of WWII, with only the location and “temperature” (e.g., the “Cold War”) shifting. The Cold War was certainly “hot” on multiple continents at multiple times, but large portions of humanity have gotten very good at convincing ourselves that we are personally living at peace, even as we avert our gaze from the horrors that are happening “somewhere else”. Perhaps that is a manifestation of the psychological defense mechanisms necessary in hell.

In addition, national governments (and wanna-be governments, too, but that’s a whole topic in itself) have increased reliance on strategies to enhance their ability to fight while maintaining public satisfaction among their supporters that their countries are still behaving with long-suffering restraint. This often requires not only that the governments exploit loopholes in international law, but that they seek loopholes within their own national laws (presuming that the governments are not dictatorial in the first place) in order to act.

Because January 23 is the 10 year anniversary of the kidnapping and subsequent slaughter of reporter Daniel Pearl, it is perhaps useful to focus this post on one such tendency: to tie an enemy’s contribution to war-making  as tightly as necessary to justify striking it directly (as opposed to merely as collateral damage), and to simultaneously authorize methods of attack that horrify other targets to the maximum possible extent.

As Asra Nomani, a Muslim woman who was also a personal friend of the Pearl family wrote in the Daily Beast:

“Danny…slipped into a car outside the Village Restaurant in Karachi, setting off for an interview where he thought he was going to meet the facilitator for “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. In the days that followed, Danny was bound, pistol-whipped, and, ultimately, slaughtered with a butcher’s knife. He tried to escape once, climbing a boundary wall, his cries of “help” alerting sleeping guards, who then beat him up. Danny was not only beheaded, but the alleged murderer, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, triumphantly held Danny’s head by his hair for the propaganda video. An autopsy report from Pakistani doctors later said that Danny’s murderers had cut his body into 10 pieces; the pieces were buried in one spot in the compound where Danny was held — stuffed into three blue shopping bags and tossed into a hole.

“…The dismembered body found in 10 (Ten) pieces is buried in a sandy land but damp soil, in an area 4x2x5 feet (length x width x depth). The cut/amputated parts found overlapping each other.” In one bag: ‘A portion of track suit that includes left sleeve & front portion with a zip, made up of green, black & dark pink cloth pieces with white internal lining is present on the left upper limb.’ His right foot was attached to his leg with a light brown sock still on it. ‘Nothing could be opined about the oozing of blood from the nose mouth and ears,’ the report said. It turns my stomach to write these words, but this is “desecration.”

“…To suggest we violated cultural norms in a way that the people of the region don’t do is to give the people of the region a pass. The legacy of the degradation of bodies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is historical. When the Taliban took seige of Kabul in 1996, they dragged a former Afghan leader, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, from a United Nations compound, cut off his penis while he was still alive, stuffed it into his mouth, and hung him from a lamp post to send a message to the community about the new sheriffs in town.

“…A Human Rights Watch report on a massacre in Afghanistan, Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity, chronicles the horror of how the dead have been treated in war in Afghanistan, starting with a man, identified as Faizal Ahmed, who had one of his arms and one of his legs cut off, in addition to his penis, which was put in his mouth.

“Says the report, ‘The first person we found was Faizal Ahmed, an old man. He was decapitated. One of his arms was cut off and one of his legs. And his penis was cut off, and his penis was put in his mouth. Then we collected three other corpses, near Balki’s shrine, and four others from the street between the Academy of Social Science and the police academy … We found one seven-year-old boy, he was decapitated. His head was nearby, it had been cut off, from behind …’ “

So reporters, children, humanitarian aid workers, and diplomatic personnel from neutral nations can be targeted and terrorized because their presence contributes to stability of the enemy regime, whether or not those targets directly enhance combatant capabilities? Do we now embrace military assault, economic assault, and psychological assault as all valid forms of warfare, subject only to the deterrence imposed by the calculus of winning and losing? If so, what are the steps we need to take as individuals with moral, as well as physical concerns?

In her piece, Nomani includes a moral judgement, and a recognition:

“…As a society, we shouldn’t seek moral equivalency, because we are then doomed to live according to the lowest standards of humanity. But we also don’t live in a moral vacuum. We don’t live in a utopia. We’re in a war.”

So, what, in practice are today’s laws of hell? What characteristics describe how they are evolving, and are they merely returning toward ancient barbarism while covered by a fig leaf?

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28 Responses to The Laws of Hell

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 21, 2012 at 7:54 AM

    Fire, the essence of the first modern rules of war was to agree to stop doing things that are tempting, but useless.

    Does anyone with any sense think that desecrating bodies lowers anyone’s will to fight? It does not. All it does is make reconciling harder. Poison gas — not worth the problems. Wooden bullets, designed to wound rather than kill — turned out to be a failure.

    Violations of the rules occur because people feel bullet proof and because they think this time

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  2. Bob on January 21, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    #1: Stephen M,
    I don’t know where you get your ideas on modern warfare, but they do not line up with mine. I guess I would have to start with what you think is ‘modern war’.

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  3. FireTag on January 21, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    Stephen M:

    “Does anyone with any sense think that desecrating bodies lowers anyone’s will to fight? It does not.”

    I’m not sure that I agree with that observation. The horror of combat can produce rage or terror, and I expect it depends a lot upon the prior training of the troops. It can have different effects on the civilians whose political support is critical behind the scene.

    Sebastian Junger wrote something in the Sydney Morning Herald that gives a different take on why desecration occurs, that I lacked room to include in the main post.

    “As a society, we may be disgusted by seeing US marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, but we remain oddly unfazed by the fact that, presumably, those same marines just put .30 calibre rounds through the fighters’ chests. American troops are not blind to this irony. They are very clear about the fact that society trains them to kill, orders them to kill and then baulks at anything that suggests they have dehumanized the enemy they have killed.

    “But, of course, they have dehumanized the enemy – otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings. Rather than demonstrating a callous disregard for the enemy, this awful incident might reveal something else: a desperate attempt by confused young men to convince themselves that they haven’t just committed their first murder, that they have simply shot some coyotes in the bush.

    “It doesn’t work, of course, but it gets them through the moment; it gets them through the rest of the patrol.”

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  4. Stephen Marsh on January 21, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    Bob, I’d put “modern warfare” at everything post WWI.

    The rules on what types of bullets are used, the prohibition on poison gas, etc. all stem from that era.

    I’ll be glad to discuss where we differ and why and how.

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  5. Bob on January 21, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    #4: Stephen Marsh,
    “Poison gas — not worth the problems. Wooden bullets, designed to wound rather than kill — turned out to be a failure”
    Wooden bullets, and Bamboo punji traps were used well in V-Nam.
    Poison Gases: unbelieveable amounts producted after WWII.
    Napalm, White Phosphorus, Agent Orange, Tear Gas,( maybe Nerve Gas), all used heavily in V-Nam. (chemical weapons).

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  6. Stephen Marsh on January 21, 2012 at 4:53 PM

    Napalm isn’t a poison gas. Agent Orange (the defoliant) was pretty useless in net.

    Punji traps (bamboo spikes with feces on them) aren’t in the list. Though who uses wooden bullets as normal ordinance to wound rather than kill in V-Nam?

    Chemical weapons and poison gas are different, though calling Napalm a chemical weapon is like calling a flame thrower or a bomb a chemical weapon …

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  7. dba.brotherp on January 21, 2012 at 5:13 PM

    The first law of hell is, “Do unto others before they do unto you.” To me, hell is all about fear. This often includes a fear of outsiders, fear of losing power, fear of being poor, etc. I think the examples of the desecration of those bodies are a manifestation of a fear that the perpetrators had. It could be a religious fear, a sexual fear, or some other kind of fear.

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  8. Bob on January 21, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    #6:Stephen Marsh,
    I was not myself in V-Nam. But I was in the Marines(Field artillery)1963-1970). I know how these weapons were used__I trained on them.
    Flame throwers contain Napalm , Man carried or tank carried.
    Wooden bullets were used by the N-Vam army.
    Ask people in VA hospitals if Agent Orange was only a ‘defoliant’.
    I guess I fired hundreds of White Phosphorus rounds. It’s heaver than air and will fill a tunnel and burn everything it contacts. Clearly was used as a chemical weapon.

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  9. Stephen Marsh on January 21, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    I was not clear. Chemical weapons =/ poison gas. I missed V-Nam myself, as well, but my father did forward fire control for the Korean tiger battalion.

    I did not say that long term, Agent Orange did not cause problems for people. What I did say was that it was pretty useless, all in all.

    The North V-Nam army’s use of wooden bullets was (a) against the rules and (b) turned out not to generate a net benefit for them.

    Which was my point. There are people still breaking the rules, but the reason that people agreed on the rules was not that they were humane or beneficial, it is that they are a checklist of things that fail to work.

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  10. Stephen Marsh on January 21, 2012 at 7:36 PM

    Which leads directly to why people break the rules. They believe that (a) they won’t be called to account and (b) that they can find an advantage.

    Waterboarding comes to mind. A war crime we executed people for.

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  11. Bob on January 21, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    #(: Stephen,
    If wooden bullets were useless, why did the other side want them banned?
    ” Chemical substances that can be delivered using munitions and dispersal devices to cause death or severe harm to people and animals and plants”.
    Agent Orange killed plants and people, but not the H.M. Trail.

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  12. FireTag on January 21, 2012 at 9:36 PM

    I’m going to just watch the debate between Bob and Stephen for a bit, because I am beginning to suspect that “useless” might be a disagreement here between “strategically useless” and “tactically useless”. I remember working to conceptualize a comparatively primitive system for USN radar fire control for shipboard air defense as a training exercise when I first joined Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab many years ago. We had a lot of debates about the worth of the system, because if the Soviets ever got to the point of trying to sink a carrier battlegroup, they were certainly going to send enough planes to do the job. Was it worthless to only make them send a few extra planes?

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  13. FireTag on January 21, 2012 at 10:08 PM


    The point about fear driving many things is well taken. I would ideally hope that whatever actions we take, it is done from a sober reflection of our values of good. But humans are given fear to trigger automatic responses to situations that can cause harm, often before we can do anything about it.

    Fear is often sensible. Telling the times when it is going to produce harm to give into the fear is one of the advantages of having brains, and, hopefully, access to divine guidance. But “harm” is only defined subjectively in regard to what we will choose to do.

    We are certainly seeing situations in the Mideast at present where people from beggars to rulers are struggling over access to power and assuming, with some reason, that they will be destroyed if they don’t have it. Somebody (or everybody) is wrong about how the power should be divided to produce the better world, but even if one side is “right”, it requires a willingness of the other side to get to agreement.

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  14. Bob on January 22, 2012 at 8:06 AM

    #12: FireTag,
    I think you are 100% on: it’s my Tactical thinking Vs Stephen’s Stragical thinking. My time was putting these weapons into play.
    At Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee was stragically right. It was the right time to deal a blow to the Northern forces in the North. But tactically, Longstreet was right also. No 15,000 men, no matter how good, could take that hill from the Northern forces.

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  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 22, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Wooden bullets are one of a number of devices aimed at wounding rather than killing. In general, a wounded man creates more drag on a military than a dead one. However, in practice the result is that if the drag reaches any significance, the wounded are just not cared for and the drag disappears

    All you have accomplished with wooden bullets and similar things is an increase in callousness.

    Except for societies that are casualty averse and resource rich. In that case, they prefer to have wounded rather than dead troops. Wooden bullets in the theatre in question benefited us, which I doubted was the intent.

    I would agree that strategic goals that are tactically impossible are just mistakes. Your example was perfect.

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  16. dba.brotherp on January 22, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    I like the ideas in #10.

    I don’t have any training in psychology so I am probably using the wrong vocabulary/ideas so fell free to correct me. I think what I was trying to say that Fear produces “Fight or Flight.” “Fight or Flight“ is limiting. Maybe there is a third, fourth, or fifth option that one might recognize if Fear wasn’t involved.

    I guess war is a good example of the “Fight” response. Maybe there’s a better option, maybe not. But if you are fearful, you wouldn’t even search out another possibility.

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  17. Bob on January 22, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    #16: dba,
    As a Marine, I was rewired to replace Fear__ with Honor or Duty. The rule was: kept going forward until you kill or are killed.DO NOT STOP! The enemy knows this, and most likely will leave. They know this because many Marines have given their lives to give you this advantage. You must give this advantage to future Marines.

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  18. FireTag on January 22, 2012 at 10:36 AM

    dba.brotherp and Bob:

    I think your comments about fight or flight are spot on. The replacement with honor and duty that gets drilled into professional troops, as Bob noted, is intended to include strict obedience to the overall laws of war, the strategic and operational objectives, and the tactical rules of engagement. It doesn’t always work; some people will flee despite duty, and some will break the laws of war despite dishonor.

    Unanticipated situations can force a soldier (or a policeman in civilian law) to try to interpret the meaning of duty and honor on the fly, but that’s not optimal.

    We would like to have the strategic thinking that looks for the third, fourth, and fifth option to be occurring far from the field of battle and well beforehand.

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  19. FireTag on January 22, 2012 at 10:41 AM


    “I would agree that strategic goals that are tactically impossible are just mistakes.”

    Well said. I observe that there has been a lot of that going around in American politics and economics right now, not just on the battlefield.

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  20. Charity on January 22, 2012 at 9:37 PM

    There are many body parts of Americans scattered throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Roadside bombs, cheap to make and placed inconspicuously to kill and/or maim Americans, have changed the lives of thousands of American troops. There is a silent horror in the eyes of soldiers who have engaged in combat, no matter what war. The cost to these young lives and their families is exponential. But when you talk with anyone of them, they would volunteer to go back in order to defend our freedom.
    That is not fear. It is resolve to win against aggression and terror. When the playing field is uneven, we place great danger to our soldiers in the mid-East. Making war the “game” or showplace of politicians undermines the fabric of our society. It brings us to our knees financially, morally, and spiritually. Thank you for writing about this subject.

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  21. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on January 23, 2012 at 11:28 PM

    oh yeah, those guys are animals alright. Really they do a good enough job of dehumanizing themselves that no real effort needs to be made to “dehumanize the enemy”. They’re already there. White Phosphorous rounds were used pretty effectively in Iraq particularly in Fallujah and saved U.S. lives in the process.

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  22. Bob on January 24, 2012 at 1:40 AM

    If White Phosphorous was used inside Fallujah, I would consider that a War Crime.

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  23. FireTag on January 24, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    In light of the past two comments, it’s probably worthwhile to note where the laws of hell now are in respect to white phosphorous. There are several parts of international law as well as several national regulations that determine whether or not use of white phosphorous is permissible or prohibited. See:

    for a summary of the issues involved.

    But, basically it boils down to the nature and purpose of its tactical use. Creating a smoke screen with white phosphorous to hide movement is generally permitted, even if its incendiary properties produce fire. Using it intending to kill by toxin would be prohibited (but tactically implausible). Using it to produce fires as a tactical measure directly, would depend, like the use of high explosives, on the ability to control the weapon so it can be directed against military targets. For example, it may not be a war crime to fire a white phosphorous round at a house from which you’re taking sniper fire, even if there turn out to be civilians inside later. It may instead be a war crime to keep civilians in the house as shields against taking fire.c And it may instead be a war crime to fire conventional explosive rockets into a town when you don’t have the accuracy to tell which house on the block the rocket will hit.

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  24. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on January 25, 2012 at 12:44 AM

    Thanks Firetag you probably said it better than I would have. Shake and Bake is what they call it. It’s kosher.. Fallujah in late 2004 has a lot of examples of unconventional warfare in an urban environment. Lots of probably willing and unwilling human shields in that battle on the bad guys side. Guys acting like they’re surrendering with white flags and then opening fire, stuff like that.

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  25. Bob on January 25, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    #23: Firetag,
    I disagree on two Points:
    1) As the story is told, WP WAS used against
    civilians inside a city.
    2) That it’s used to produce smoke, to camouflage movement––is just a lie.
    You have smoke rounds for smoke. The WP is just not in the air that long (heavier than air).
    I have touched with one finger__takes the skin right off. You are likely to be a zombie if you live.
    To used it for ANY reason, IMO, is a war crime.

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  26. FireTag on January 25, 2012 at 10:37 AM


    The key phrase in your comment is “IMO”. Please note that a lot of times what people debate is what the laws of war OUGHT to be, not what they actually ARE. The allowed or prohibited use of WP inside a city is dependent on the control and specific tactical use of the weapon. Any city contains lots of open ground where you have to move in the open; or you wouldn’t carry EITHER smoke rounds or WP rounds in the first place.

    SUNN speaks adequately about the inability of later reports to distinguish who was or was not a civilian in the mideast.

    HE, or bullets, for that matter, tear people apart INTENTIONALLY. Death or terrible injury is NOT the defining characteristic of crime in war; that’s why civilian law is inadequate.

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  27. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on January 26, 2012 at 1:00 AM

    Oh, everyone in Fallujah was a civilian if you asked em. War is hell as they always say. If we had heavenly powers we wouldn’t have to choose between using artillery or infantry or an airstrike to take out an enemy position. There’d probably still be wars though, God has heavenly powers and yet we still fight.

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  28. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on January 30, 2012 at 11:48 PM

    “Hammering down the Satan’s Law As all your fears now come true this is the end of innocence”

    -Impaled Nazarene “The Endless War”

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