Ariel Dorfman: A Tale of Torture and Forgiveness

Yves here. This post may seem a bit off topic for Naked Capitalism, but as our society becomes increasingly authoritarian, it is reflected in the increasingly open use of torture. Even as much as we live in denial of death, none of us will escape that outcome. So while killing someone may appear to be the ultimate expression of power, torture might fit that bill better.

If we are ever to reverse the brutalization of our society, we will need to find a way to deal with torturers and other official abusers. I hope readers do not see this trailer as trivializing the essay that follows, but I am big on synchronicity, and came across it shortly before reading the Dorfman article. I was so taken with Magnolia that I saw it three times in its theatrical run. One of its striking qualities was maintaing a remarkable amount of tension without resorting to violence. The part that is germane starts at about 1:45.

By Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean-American writer and co-author, with his son Rodrigo, of Prisoners in Time, which won the 1995 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Feature Film on TV. The film was seen in many countries, with one notable exception: the United States. Dorfman teaches at Duke University and lives with his wife, Angélica, in Durham, North Carolina, and, from time to time, in their native Chile. His latest book is the memoir Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.. Originally published at TomDispatch

According to an Amnesty International Poll released in May, 45% of Americans believe that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable” in order to “gain information that may protect the public.” Twenty-nine percent of Britons “strongly or somewhat agreed” that torture was justified when asked the same question.

For someone like me, who has been haunted by the daily existence of torture since the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende, such percentages couldn’t be more depressing, but perhaps not that surprising. I now live, after all, in the America where Dick Cheney, instead of being indicted as a war criminal, sneeringly (and falsely) claims to anyone who asks him — and he is trotted out over and over again as the resident expert on the subject — that  “enhanced interrogations” have been and still are absolutely necessary to keep Americans safe.

As for those Americans and Britons — and so many others around the world — who find such horrors justifiable, I wonder if they have ever met a victim of torture? Or do they think this endless pain is only inflicted on remote and dangerous people caught up in unfathomable wars and savage conflicts? If so, they should think again.

When I read these sorts of statistics a scene comes back to me. I remember a man I met 20 years ago, not in my native Latin America or in faraway lands where torture is endemic, but in the extremely English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Everybody in the room that day was crying, except for the man who had moved us all to tears, the former prisoner of war whom my son Rodrigo and I had traveled thousands of miles to meet. We had hoped to do justice to his story in a biopic, Prisoners in Time, that the BBC wanted to make for television — based on the same autobiographical material used recently in The Railway Man, the film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman now showing in theaters across America.

And what an extraordinary story it was!

Eric Lomax, a British officer in World War II, had been tortured by the Japanese in Thailand while working on the infamous Bangkok-Burma railroad, the one most people know about through another film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Eric, like so many victims of atrocities, was plagued by the experience, his life destroyed by memories of his agony and the desire for revenge. What differentiated him from so many others persecuted worldwide was not only that, more than 40 years later, he tracked down the man he held responsible for his suffering, the anonymous interpreter at his beatings and waterboardings, but the astounding fact that this tormentor, Takashi Nagase, once found and identified, turned out to be a Buddhist monk. Nagase had spent the postwar decades denouncing his own countrymen for their crimes and trying to atone for his role in the atrocities he had helped commit by caring for innumerable orphans of the Asians who had died building that railroad. The one scorching image from the war he could not escape was that of a brave young British lieutenant over whose torture he had presided and whom he had presumed to be dead.

Once Eric Lomax resurfaced, once the two former enemies, now old men accompanied by their second wives, met in Kanchanaburi next to the River Kwai where they had last parted, once they were face to face, Nagase begged for forgiveness. It was not instantly forthcoming. But some weeks later, in Hiroshima of all places, Lomax offered Nagase the absolution that he needed in order to live and die in peace.

The BBC had chosen me to tell this tale because, in my play Death and the Maiden, I had already probed the issues of torture, memory, mercy, and vengeance from the perspective of my beleaguered country, Chile. But in that play there had been no pardon offered and no pardon sought, so writing about Lomax’s dilemma seemed a way of furthering that original exploration with a series of new questions. Is reconciliation ever really possible when the wounds are searing and permanent? Does anything change if the victimizer claims to have repented? How can we ever know if those claims are legitimate, if that remorse is not merely an ego-trip, an accommodation for the sake of outward appearances?

There was also an aesthetic challenge: given the extreme reserve of both antagonists, their inability to articulate to one another — no less anybody else — what they had been feeling all those years, how to imagine, for the screen, dialogue our two silent former enemies would never have said but that would remain true to their affliction? How to bring their story to people who can’t possibly imagine what torture does to the ones who suffer it and those who create that suffering?

Our visit with Eric and his wife Patti at their home in the far north of England was a way of trying to coax from that emotionally repressed man some information — entirely absent from the memoir he had written — about how he had dealt with the barren wilderness of his sorrow, what it meant to survive torture and war more dead than alive. We were accompanied by director Stephen Walker and celebrated psychiatrist Helen Bamberg, who had helped Eric name his demons, and so saved him and his troubled marriage.

That day in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Eric confided to us, after several hours of halting monosyllables, a painful, unbelievable story. When he returned to England by ship after those traumatic years as a prisoner of war, he discovered just before disembarking that the British Army had deducted from his back pay the cost of the boots he had lost during his captivity. Bamberg, who had managed to get Eric to speak out after many distressing sessions, asked him if he had told anyone about this at the time.

“Nobody,” Eric said. And then, after a pause that felt infinite, “There was nobody there, at the dock.” He stopped and again long minutes of silence went by before he added, “Only a letter from my father. Saying he had remarried, as my mother had died three years before.” Another long pause followed. “She died thinking I was also dead. I had been writing to her all that time and she was dead.”

That’s when we all started to cry.

Not just out of sympathy for his grief, but because Eric had delivered this story about his loss in a monotone devoid of any apparent sentiment, as if all that despair belonged to someone else. Such dissociation is typical of torture victims. Their mental survival during their ordeal and its unending aftermath depends on distancing themselves from the body and its fate. And it is in that distance that they dwell.

We were crying, I believe, for humanity. We were crying in the Lomax living room because we were being confronted with a reality and a realization that most people would rather avoid: when grievous harm has been done to someone, the damage may be beyond repair. Eric Lomax had been able to tame the hatred raging in his heart and, reaching into the deepest wells of compassion, he had forgiven one of the men who had destroyed him. And yet there was still something irreparable, a terror that ultimately could not be assuaged.

The film we wrote two decades ago tried to be faithful to that desolate moment of revelation and at the same time not betray the inner peace that Eric had attained, the fact that he no longer heard Nagase’s voice in his nightmares demanding, “Confess, Lomax, confess and pain will stop.” He had triumphed over fear and fury, but that spiritual victory had not been achieved in solitude. In addition to the support of his wife Patti, it was due to the healing process he had gone through with Helen Bamberg. Not until he had fully come to terms with what had been done to him, until he faced his trauma in all its horror, was he able to “find” Nagase, whose identity and location had, in fact, been within reach for decades.

Eric’s tragedy and his attempt at reconciliation had a special meaning for me: it connected his life to that of so many friends in Chile and other countries who had been subjected to inhuman interrogations. It was a way of understanding the common humanity of all torture victims. More so, as the method that Bamberg employed to resurrect Eric’s memories and restore his mental health had first been elaborated as a therapeutic response to the flood of damaged Latin Americans exiled in England during the 1970s and 1980s, those years when grim dictatorships dominated that continent. Eric Lomax, she said, had the sad privilege of being the first World War II veteran with PTSD who was able to take advantage of this new psychological treatment.   

We could not know, of course, that 9/11 awaited us seven years in the future, that the waterboarding inflicted on Eric in the 1940s by the Japanese, and on the bodies of so many Latin Americans decades later by their own countrymen, would go global as the United States and its allies fought the “war on terror.” Nor could we have guessed or would we have dreamed that so many millions would in that future prove so indifferent to a form of punishment that has been classified as a crime against humanity and is against international treaty and law signed onto by most of the world’s nations.

It would seem, then, that Eric Lomax’s story is more relevant today than ever — a story that, one would hope, brings home again, during Torture Awareness Month, the ultimate reality and anguish of being tortured. Or can we accept that the questions Eric Lomax asked himself about forgiveness and revenge, about redemption and memory, no longer trouble contemporary humanity?

How would our friend Eric, who died in 2012, react to the news that so many Americans and so many of the very countrymen he served in the war now declare torture to be tolerable? Perhaps he would whisper to them the words he wrote to Nagase when he forgave his enemy: “Sometime the hatred has to stop.”

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  1. John

    The problem with the US is we’ve never reconciled our race problems. Any group that has not been part of the Anglo majority has at one point experienced institutionaled brutality, usually codified into law. When 45% of Americans believe torture is justified, respondents generally mean it is ok to mete out torture on people of color (blacks, Muslims, Latinos) That is why Cheney is so snarky when the topic comes up.

    Unfortunately, we cannot discuss such a topic in a civilized manner making social justice that much harder to achieve.

    1. Will Shetterly

      This country has never hesitated to brutalize working class whites either. A racial breakdown on who approves of torture in the US would be interesting, especially if was broken down by class, too, but remember that Condi Rice and Colin Powell never broke ranks over it.

      1. John

        Unfortunately, it has always been well accepted practice for non-Anglos to get most “it.” Condi and Powell were simply ‘normalizing’ with Cheney’s warped way of thinking: Muslims would have to bear the torture. That is why they are all so unapologetic.

        1. hunkerdown

          Yes, and so can consumption choices at the other end. Left to our own devices, we usually end up in the middle with things like bodily mutilations and steadfast devotion to select clear falsehoods.

          What’s notable is how the market has been asserting itself rather jealously in that space of tribal identification, by way of “anti-racism” and “feminism” movements (as distinguished from civil rights and equal rights movements, which just weren’t neoliberal enough).

  2. Middle Seaman

    Let’s face it, we are the torturers. It isn’t them, it’s us. Dictatorships and democracies do it. The excuses abound. Maybe smarter people know how to stop torture, I have not a clue. The torturers of the KGB, CIA, Mosad and Arab intelligence services, to name just a few, grow up with us. They are our friends and family. They are the typical Joes. They are of the right, center and left. They like art or sports.

  3. Mark P

    You probably haven’t read Dorfman’s FEEDING ON DREAMS, the book linked to above.

    Not coincidentally, Dorfman makes reference in it to the “malignant Latin American laboratory I had escaped” and to how disturbing it has been “to see the shock therapy executed in Chile being applied on the vaster scale of the United States: the same formulas of the Chicago boys and Milton Friedman and other ideologues who had been Pinochet’s neoliberal gurus, the same dismantling of the welfare state and safety nets for the poor, the same tax policies favoring the rich…”

    Although, as Dorfman notes, “at least the American and British people were spared, as we Chileans were not, the accompanying horrors of dictatorship.”

  4. Banger

    It shouldn’t be that surprising that nearly half of Americans are fond of torture. Our popular entertainments usually portray torture, intimidation, beatings and so on as essential to get the “bad guys” to talk. It happens so often we don’t even notice it. And the words, in that previous sentence, are precisely the problem. The existence of the concept of “bad guys” and “good guys” indicates there is a class of sub-humans or, virtually, insects, whose lives, hopes, dreams, and history is of no concern to us because they are “bad” and therefore subject to death and torture. When you see a hero killing someone in an American movie there are no feelings. The bad guys are just mosquitoes that we kill on our way to get the girl and save the day.

    I cringe everytime I hear the terms of “bad guys” and “good guys”–who are they? I don’t think I’ve ever met either one–am I missing out on something? I’ve met violent people who, usually, have been severely abused as children–most of them know they shouldn’t react in the way they do when you peer underneath the bravado and the swagger. The other violent type you meet is the programmed thug, i.e., the combat soldier, the cop who carries the burden of being the point of the blade for official violence. In there are the torturers who are the “good guys” to those that identify with State power and for me are just human wreckage.

    Even here at NC there is a good guy/bad guy notion of finance oligarchs as bad and Ralph Nader as good–in fact it depends how you look at it. I was very good friends with someone who was an early Nader Raider who though Ralph was a dick–btw, I think Nader is a great man as a historical figure but I also know that such people can be very difficult to be around just as Picasso was a very good artist but also fairly obnoxious and self-centered. A person I knew who was close to Nixon in his later years thought he was sweet man. Was he really a “bad guy”? I actually never thought so–I thought he was troubled. If you read Family of Secrets by Russ Baker, perhaps the best “deep politics” book published in recent years (carefully researched and footnoted) you realize that the whole Watergate fiasco was very likely a setup.

    We have to avoid categorizations of people so we can hurt them, insult them, torture them and kill them. The U.S. goes out and kills and tortures people it thinks are a threat. I submit to you that most of those people are absolutely no threat to any of us but, instead, those that carry out the killings and tortures are most certainly a threat (but they are still people, often decent onew, who have allowed themselves to be used by a toxic state), I submit to you that the American media and entertainment industry are mind-control projects (usually unwittingly) for the deep state to condition us to accept brutality, i.e., a sort of basic training lite particularly for young men.

    This all made me think of the old Fugs song (1966) “Kill for Peace” (lyrics).

    1. ewmayer

      Tripartite post:

      [1] Banger: “Our popular entertainments usually portray torture, intimidation, beatings and so on as essential to get the “bad guys” to talk. It happens so often we don’t even notice it.”

      Indeed. And it`s not just overtly torture-happy shows like Fox`s 24 — I used to be a fan of the similarly long-running series Supernatural, but stopped watching as over time it grew on me how much torture was used as a dramatic element in the show. Of course there the fig leaf of it happening to “the other” cuts both ways — the angels and demons have no qualms about torturing and killing the lesser-being “mere mortal” humans, and the human demon-hunters similarly readily torture and kill their supernatural prey because “it`s Us vs Them and They don`t hesitate to do it to us.”

      [2] Another near-unbelievable WW2 story echoing Mr. Lomax`s is that of American pilot Louis Zamperini, which was the subject of the 2010 Laura Hillenbrand book Unbroken, and apparently will soon appear as a film. From the Wikipedia article:

      In 1946 [Zamperini] married Cynthia Applewhite, to whom he remained married until her death in 2001. After the war and suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, Zamperini became a born-again Christian after attending a crusade led by evangelist Billy Graham in 1949 in Los Angeles. Graham later helped Zamperini launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker. His wife Cynthia was instrumental in getting him to go to Billy Graham’s meetings and not leaving before he was converted. One of his favorite themes is “forgiveness”, and he has visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know that he has forgiven them. Many of the war criminals who committed the worst atrocities were held in the Sugamo prison in Tokyo. In October 1950 Zamperini went to Japan, gave his testimony, and preached to them through an interpreter (a missionary named Fred Jarvis). The colonel in charge of the prison encouraged any of the prisoners who recognized Zamperini to come forward and meet him again. Zamperini threw his arms around each of them. Once again he explained the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. The prisoners were somewhat surprised by Zamperini’s genuine affection for those who had once ill-treated him. Most of the prisoners accepted copies of the New Testament which had been given by the Gideons.

      For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. While there, he attempted to meet with his chief and most brutal tormentor during the war, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who had evaded prosecution as a war criminal, but the latter refused to see him. In March 2005 he returned to Germany to visit the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the first time since he competed there.

      [3] I`ve long considered as one of the underrated knock-on tragedies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings the fact that they allowed Japanese nationalists to turn the tables and portray Japan as a victim in WW2.

  5. DakotabornKansan

    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

    “We found that U.S. personnel, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaty obligations … torture was used against detainees in many instances and across a wide range of theaters.” – Asa Hutchinson, co-chair, “Bipartisan Report: US Practiced Widespread Torture, Has No Justification, Doesn’t Yield Significant Information, Nation’s Highest Officials Bear Responsibility,” Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment

    I find it absolutely amazing that nowadays, when people are asked about torture, by any definition a horrible crime, one hears a lot more equivocation and even outright tolerance.

    Justice Antonin Scalia defended the use of torture in certain situations. When a Canadian judge once said, “Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra ‘What would Jack Bauer do?’” Scalia retorted, “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives … Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.”

    Keller said the NY Times didn’t describe Bush interrogation techniques as “torture” because defenders of water-boarding, including senior Bush administration officials insisted that it did not constitute torture.

    How can so many say torture is immoral, yet say it is justified for security reasons? Won over by the homeland security agenda of our government and superpower state? Doublethink in today’s world.

    One of the most contentious issues for the international Nazi war crime tribunals at the end of the WWII was whether the defendants would be represented by counsel of their choosing and have the right to present a vigorous defense. Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was to act as chief prosecutor, carried the day by establishing that it was vital to the Allies not only that the tribunals do justice but that they be perceived as doing justice. The Nuremberg trials were among America’s most noble undertakings.
    Justice Jackson, having witnessed the Nazi regime, worried about pervasive national power, telling his law clerks that the first step to tyranny was to centralize control of the police and the courts.

    “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.” – Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief Counsel for the Prosecution of War Crimes at the Nuremberg Tribunal

    Scott Horton, “When Lawyers Are War Criminals,”

    ”I come to the example of Moltke for another reason, namely that he very properly puts the emphasis not on the simple soldiers who invariably operate the weaponry of war, but on those who make the policies that drive their conduct. And in that process, his stern gaze falls first on the lawyers. In a proper society, the lawyers are the guardians of law, and in times of war, their role becomes solemn. Moltke challenges us to test the conduct of the lawyers. Do they show fidelity to the law? Do they recognize that the law of armed conflict, with its protections for disarmed combatants, for civilians and for detainees, reflects a particularly powerful type of law – as Jackson said “the basic building blocks of civilization”? Do they appreciate that in this area of law, above all others, the usual lawyerly tricks of dicing and splicing, of sophist subversion, cannot be tolerated?

    These are questions Moltke asked. They are questions that the US-led prosecution team in Nuremberg asked. They are questions that Americans should be asking today about the conduct of government lawyers who have seriously wounded, if not destroyed, the Geneva system.”

    I have just finished reading Nick Turse’s “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.”

    “Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert reported to his superiors “descriptions of torture at the 172nd Military Intelligence Detachment compound, as well as other horrific stories … the scores of atrocities that the army uncovered as a result of Herbert’s charges would remain secret for decades.”
    “After the war most scholars wrote off the accounts of widespread war crimes that recur throughout Vietnamese revolutionary publications and American antiwar literature as merely so much propaganda. Few academic historians even thought to cite such sources, and almost none did so extensively. Meanwhile, My Lai came to stand for—and thus blot out—all other American atrocities. Vietnam War bookshelves are now filled with big-picture histories, sober studies of diplomacy and military tactics, and combat memoirs told from the soldiers’ perspective. Buried in forgotten U.S. government archives, locked away in the memories of atrocity survivors, the real American war in Vietnam has all but vanished from public consciousness.” – Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

    “The approach this nation has taken to waging war since Vietnam (absolving the people from meaningful involvement), along with the way it organizes its army (relying on professionals), has altered the relationship between the military and society in ways that too few Americans seem willing to acknowledge. Since 9/11, the relationship has been heavy on symbolism and light on substance, with assurances of admiration for soldiers displacing serious consideration of what they are sent to do or what consequences ensue. In all the ways that actually matter, that relationship has almost ceased to exist.” – Andrew J. Bacevich

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘The Nuremberg trials were among America’s most noble undertakings.’

      This assertion might have been true if all war crimes of the period — including British bombings of German civilian targets, and U.S. nuclear bombings of Japanese civilian targets — had been prosecuted.

      Selective justice continues today, as African and Yugoslav war criminals are prosecuted at The Hague, but notorious British war criminal Tony Blair roams free.

      The preceding system of ending wars with civil settlements seems preferable to one-sided criminal prosecutions.

      1. DakotabornKansan

        Yes, had the shoe been on the other foot, if the Germany and Japan had won World War II, rest assured that Curtis LeMay and “Bomber” Harris would have been in the dockets as war criminals for their terror bombing policies.

        In his angry study of German amnesia about the Allied bombing, WG Sebald wrote:

        “The sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions [of Germans] in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation…

        “For if anything first set off the immeasurable suffering that we Germans inflicted on the world it was language of this kind spread out of ignorance and resentment. The majority of Germans today know, or at least so it is to be hoped, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived. Scarcely anyone can now doubt that Air Marshal Goering would have wiped out London if his technical resources had allowed him to do so.” – WG Sebald, On The Natural History Of Destruction

        It is too easily forgotten that war is partially about retaliation, whether the consequences are good or evil. For those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

    2. Banger

      We live in a culture of denial. People did not want to hear the stories told by returning vets–I knew what went on because I was willing to listen. Most of the foundations of our meta narrative are demonstrably false as any of the lies that underlay Soviet society. I remember being so interested in totalitarian cultures–how could people believe the absurd things they claimed to believe? Then I started looking into our own narrative and was shocked to find out that all the major claims we make in our society are either false or distorted. The authorities even air brush people out of history–not anywhere as bad as Stalin but still…..

    3. barrisj

      I was about to comment that US prisons – and in fact the entire US “criminal justice system” is nothing more than institutionalised torture by another name. Throw in the private-entrerprise “detention centres” that ICE and USBP use to warehouse hundreds of thousands of “illegals”, including an enormously growing number of children, and you see the headlong brutalisation of life occurring in many sectors of US society. Small wonder that those who have grown up in such a society, thence joined the military, have extended these “values” to overseas duties as occupiers of foreign lands, and the resultant chaos and violence visited upon the unfortunate occupants of said countries. Well, there is always comfort in the dictum what goes around comes around, as we now observe, e.g., with militarised police forces running amok amongst the US populace in their pursuit of “protection of the public order”.

  6. casino implosion

    Torture is as human as love, war, malice, hope, religion, trade and language. It will never, ever be eradicated, but only morph into new and ingenious forms.

  7. Eric377

    To discuss Cheney here is fair but I think it overestimates his influence. Who is principally responsible for the current distribution of thinking about torture in America? Khalid Sheik Mohammed I would say.

  8. digi_owl

    I suspect that the issue, at least in USA, is that war is something that happens “over there”.

    Not since the civil war has there been a war on the US mainland, and even then it was limited to the east coast. I do wonder if a large part of that percentage lives in the “heartland”.

  9. Synopticist

    “Twenty-nine percent of Britons “strongly or somewhat agreed””

    I don’t want to sound overly nasty or contrarian here, but I suspect this has nothing to do with Jack Baur. It’s more about a constant stream of al qeada members or jihadi activists of one sort or another suing the UK taxpayer with transparently false stories about mistreatment, and getting ridiculously supportive encouragement from liberals (English definition) in the media and courts.

    This is anti-establishment blowback.

    1. hunkerdown

      Oh, if only people made the connection that al-CIAda works for their own deep white state and their own oil-drenched lifestyles, they might think differently about things.

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