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Too close to home: the Boston Marathon bombing

The terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon calls up a number of questions that have no easy answers. As someone who once lived next to the scene of the attack and who experienced terrorist attacks while…

Bombings at the site of the Boston Marathon have killed at least three people. EPA/Stuart Cahill/The Boston Herald

The terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon calls up a number of questions that have no easy answers.

As someone who once lived next to the scene of the attack and who experienced terrorist attacks while living in Washington D.C., this also calls up a number of uncomfortable feelings.

Having family and friends in the area – including one who had just completed the marathon shortly before the bombings – it is easier for me focus on the analytical aspects of why this attack might have occurred than to write about how it feels.

Terrorists of all stripes view themselves as altruists forced to do what most acknowledge are evil, but in their view necessary, acts to call attention to injustice. Terrorism is called “the weapon of the weak” – it is something groups resort to when they know that they do not enjoy public support and no one is listening.

By grabbing media attention, they hope that their concerns will be aired and that the public will ultimately look past its horror over the violence and come to support their cause. This has been the strategy for more than a century of modern terrorism, used by international groups like the Palestine Liberation Organisation and, increasingly, by “lone wolf” individuals like Norway’s mass-murdering Anders Breivik.

Given the lack of intelligence intercepted or claims of responsibility by existing groups right now, this attack appears to have been the work of a lone wolf or a small cell. They can’t launch major attacks like 9/11, but they are nearly undetectable in advance and incredibly dangerous in their unpredictability.

There is always the possibility that this was a foreign-based attack. One in eight Boston residents is a university student, at institutions like Harvard, with most drawn from outside the city and many from abroad. The Marathon also draws spectators from around the world; the male and female winners this year were both from Kenya.

Al-Qaeda supporters have been attempting to place bombs in crowded places in the US for years, such as the attempted car-bombing of Times Square in 2010 (by a lone wolf trained by the Pakistani Taliban). This attack on the Marathon consisted of synchronous bombings, which is a hallmark of al-Qaeda, and three of the four 9/11 flights departed from Boston’s Logan Airport.

But there are more reasons to believe this was a domestic attack by right wing extremists, besides the fact that al-Qaeda twin bombings are usually martyrdom operations and this clearly was not. The Boston Marathon always takes place on the Monday of the week of April 19. That is a state holiday in Massachusetts, Patriot Day, which commemorates the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War against Britain in the nearby town of Lexington, and it is also venerated by anti-government activists.

For loosely connected reasons, April 19 was also the date of the 1995 bombing of a Federal office building in Oklahoma City by an anti-government militia extremist that killed 168 people and was the biggest terror attack in the US until 9/11.

The day of this attack on the Marathon was also the day federal income taxes are due in the US, and that has been an occasion for small-scale assaults by extremists as well. Boston is close to Newtown, Connecticut, and it is easy to imagine that militia members may have been protesting proposed gun restrictions. Leftist, university-centred Boston is usually held up by the right wing in America as a source of cultural pollution and socialism and could be a target for that reason as well.

The finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombings. So far, no individual or group has claimed responsibility. EPA/Michael Cummo

Everyone I know with a Boston connection says they either feel sick or are still in shock. Having attended Boston University, lived in that neighbourhood, and even watched the Marathon from Boylston Street where the bombing took place, it feels tragic not just for what happened, but for how this will unimaginably change other public gatherings in America in the future.

Counter-terrorism security has been intense at stadium events like the Super Bowl since the 1990s, but it is hard to imagine how you hold a marathon in strict security. Americans will just have to learn to live with new levels of risk, and presumably to be spectators at mass gatherings alongside armed police and soldiers.

Two days after I watched the Boston Marathon from Boylston Street as a freshman in college, I was in the pizzeria in Kenmore Square just a street away when I saw news of the Oklahoma City bombing. Six years later, I had to evacuate the US Capitol where I was working as an aide on 9/11, a beautiful autumn morning much as it was today in Melbourne where I am currently working.

A month after 9/11, my office was the one that received the anthrax mailing, and I was required to take heavy antibiotics for 103 days and receive army vaccines that had never been intended for post-exposure purposes. A year after that, the Washington DC area sniper shot people in the head outside of my hardware store and I crouched between the gas tanks when filling my car at night. I was happy to leave DC after all of this, and didn’t mind ultimately leaving America either.

This morning, shortly after I learned of the attack on Boston, I had to get off the tram and walk a kilometre or so when the police stopped traffic on St Kilda Road in front of the US Consulate in Melbourne.

Normally I can slip into academic mode when attacks occur, but this morning all I could think about was that other beautiful autumn day when I’d had to walk miles around a police roadblock to get home. You can’t get much farther from Boston than Melbourne, but obviously time and space never fully mitigate these experiences.

My heart goes out to everyone in Boston who will never have the same Marathon again, and everyone who will always worry about their security in public places. Today I wish I was a detached academic who didn’t know what the post-terrorism knot in the stomach feels like.

Join the conversation

45 Comments sorted by

  1. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    "Vatican in Van of New Cold War" is the title of a 1996 article in The Australian national newspaper by the late Frank Devine.
    In this article Devine reports the opinions of several right wing US "intellectuals" who argued that, after the ending of the Cold War with the defeat of communism, the triumphant Catholic Church would turn to the secular democracy of the US and its quote "idolatry of the self" as the target of a new Cold War of the 21st century.
    Devine, a "muscular" Catholic himself…

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Phillip

      Well, Grumpy Old Man, need it be pointed out Home grown terrorism would relate to Boston, as relates to the article?
      WTF are you talking about, if it is not a waste of time asking, as appears to be the case?
      Right wing terrorism does not exist in Grumpy Old Man land?
      Go and light a candle somewhere.

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to John Phillip

      I think - and I am only speculating here - James is suggesting that the Boston attacks were a false flag operation carried out by the Vatican - or possibly Vatican agents manipulating useful idiots who believe they are carrying some other agenda.
      The black hand of the Vatican was revealed in 1996 by a rather obscure second rate journalist Frank Devine - who always struck me as a dull but essentially harmless writer - doubtless his mantle has been taken up by Miranda of the same name.

      Although James is not explicit in this, I am pretty sure I am not doing him an injustice in my summation.

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Phillip

      To use your quaint term,WTF are you talking about?
      The Devine article, as the title indicates, has the Vatican attacking the US in a new cold war against secular democracies and particularly "The idolatry of self".
      So why indeed, John, would anyone giving credence to that article then discount the Vatican's invovlement in any right wing attack upon the US?
      If you don't beieve that article as described, it is not on an electronic archive, then fine.
      There is objective evidence of warlike antagonism…

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    4. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Yes, Sean, Heaven save us from uncomfortable suggestions.

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    5. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to James Hill

      James, your 'theory' as to who is responsible for the Boston bombings is just speculation. as such it falls into the same idiotic category as that proposed by Alan Jones on radio yesterday. For that he was rightly and roundly hammered. You should suffer the same fate.

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    6. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Phillip

      Rightly and roundly hammered?
      Not by any efforts that you might be capable of John, with respect.
      It is not a theory, it might just scrape in as an hypothesis, not yet tested by experiment.
      Not long ago it was "idiotic" to suggest that priests ever abused children.
      A convenient excuse and a craven one for those who had the responsibility to, but were somehow unable to protect the children of their own faith community, and which has seen the wider community stepping in via a Royal Commission to…

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    7. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to James Hill

      James, no hypothesis. :) Why have you got such a hard-on against the right wing? Ok I'll accept that . My point is it is absolutely pointless to speculate as to who is responsible for the murders in Boston. That's all/ Nothing more. Murder is just murder. Cheers

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    8. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Phillip

      All those victims of Australian funded catholic terrorist bombs in the British Isles will be mollified by your dismissal of their suffering.
      Apparently they are the figment of a bigoted imagination.

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    9. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Phillip

      Eh, WWII then? The Jews of Rome sent off to their deaths while a certain politico-religious "potentate" turned his back?
      Murder is murder. Nothing more. Cheers.
      Enjoy your permanent "retreat" from reality.
      And John, I'll end with Liberation Theology catholic priests in South and Central America murdered by right wing extremists.
      Murder is just murder you say?
      The template for right and left wing extremism was established by the Totalitarian Inquisition set up by the medieval church.

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    10. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to James Hill

      Terror is used to prevent the population from thinking.
      That unmentionable 20th century right wing dictator said this and applied it to his own people.
      But, mercifully unnecessary, if the education system infantilises the resulting adults to the point where they don't even want to think?
      Give me the child and I'll give you the man.
      Or the unmanned, as the case may be.
      Not looking at you, John.
      Just speculating. Cheers.

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    11. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Phillip

      Also worthy of speculation, John, is the connection between Catholic Croatians and Muslims from Montenegro and Kosovo and foreign mujahiddins, fighting in alliance against The Orthodox Serbs in the 1990's.
      You know that area, the cockpit of Europe,The Balkans, where the decaying Empire of Catholic Austria followed up its prior provocative attempts to annex Orthodox Serbia by declaring that war which ultimately killed 60,000 Australians, and 250,000 of their Serbian allies, lest we forget.
      Or the…

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    12. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to James Hill

      James, you are making a comment about terrorism in general then,not specifically about Boston? I just find your phrasing unclear. It appeared that your first comment was a speculation that the Vatican was behind the Boston bombings :"His article provides solid support for home grown terrorism as the probable source of the Boston Bombs." I think, given the capture of one of the terrorists that your theory is shot. That's not to say that it's wrong in other instances. I'd like to see some actual evidence of bomb and terror plots from the Vatican rather than an op ed piece by the late Mr Devine before I'd accept that part of your premise.

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    13. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to James Hill

      James you certainly seem to have nailed a lot of history, which shouldn't be forgotten. But you did forget the agreement between the Europeans and the Arabs during the First World War (Lawrence of Arabia) where the Caliphate was to be replaced by independent Arab states if the Arabs fought against the Turks (as we did). However when the post-war agreement occurred the Europeans carved up the Arab lands between them, completely betraying the Arabs. The US was there but argued against this. Thus…

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    14. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Caroline Copley

      Thanks for the lecture Caroline, but its relevance to any of my comments?
      And by way of complaint, it is common for ignoramuses to confuse The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Nothern Ireland with a place called "England" and to ascribe the policies of the former national entity to the English, apparently the absolute font of all evil.
      It does test your credibility on the history front.
      The US did quite well setting up the Arab American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia while the Brits continued their pre WWI dominance of Oil fields in Mesopotamia where the fledgling British air force practised their bombing skills on the unsuspecting villagers of Kurdistan.
      Of course the completely benign and peaceful Empires of Germany and Austria, in alliance with Turkey, had no possible interest at all in the oil fields of Arabia.
      No of course not.

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    15. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to James Hill

      James you seem to have construed my longish response as an attack on you i.e. "your lecture". Actually I found your post rather interesting and thought I might contribute some thoughts I had been having on the history of the whole issue for quite some time. Not all any criticism of your informed view.
      I also appreciate the points about the US and Saudi Arabia as I know Faisal and family did receive some limited control as puppet leaders, but the situation appears to be different in Saudi Arabia…

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  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Golly, so setting off bombs in cities is unfashionable now? I must have missed the memo. Last I heard we were supposed to be cheering the merry bombers of Aleppo and Damascus and now suddenly we are told bombs in Boston are the most terrible, epoch making tragedy. How on earth do the respectable people manage to keep this subtle but vital distinctions straight in their heads?

    I guess if I managed to understand the difference I could have been a lecturer in international relations also.

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    1. Marilyn Shepherd

      pensioner

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      And Gillard sent her condolences to Boston and ignored Iraq. I wonder if she bothered to watch 4 Corners last night or would it have been too uncomfortable for Bliar's former advisor to see the truth about his former boss.

      I also downloaded and watched Frontline about Syria, the brutality of a government blasting their own citizens off the face of the earth looks just like us blasting citizens of other countries off the face of the earth.

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    2. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Some points for that most interesting "Science Denier".
      The incredible bleating about democracy stops short at the border of Syria, making the purveyors of the endless Western mantra look even more hypocritical than they did when they tore apart Iraq and tens of thousands of people died in the name of it.
      As such all anyone such as myself can do, is cheer the opposition on in the hope they can win, whether by bomb or gun, clearly neither of which we have the guts enough to provide.
      However…

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    3. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Caroline Copley

      "However I might add that I too like other Westerners were prepared to have dealings with Quaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and the family in charge of Syria. "

      Really? I can't say the same for myself - I have never had dealings Quaddafi or Saddam Hussein, although I did (apparently) met a Syrian cabinet minister to do with internal security - I didn't catch his name. However the meeting was entirely involuntary on my behalf

      "As such all anyone such as myself can do, is cheer the opposition on in…

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    4. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      You accuse me of supporting terrorism which I find offensive, I am not supporting Al Quaeda in Syria, I am pointing out they make the West look like idiots standing there doing nothing whilst they play the hero, which of course wins hearts and minds.
      You fail to see the flaws in regimes such as Quaddafi, and when I say I supported them at one stage as the West did, I meant that I concurred with the West's position to play a role including negotiation and diplomacy. I would have preferred that to…

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    5. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to Caroline Copley

      Qualification my comment on earlier post about Alan Jones was about his call in response to the Boston bombings to prevent more foreigners from coming into Australia.
      I believe the bombings were red-knecked terrorism in response to the immigration bill to be introduced in the US this week. After the things going on in the township of West near Waco I was even more horrified about the prospect of rising right-wingism in the USA.
      However I was clearly wrong, almost a relief to find out that two…

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    6. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to John Phillip

      Silly about jumping to the wrong conclusion, yes, far rightist like Alan Jones whipping up anti-Lebanese riots never.
      Supporter of installing right-wing Abbott government, taking us on the same path as the dangerous right-wingers, albeit more slowly, never.

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    7. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to John Phillip

      The assertion I alluded to that he made was something along the lines of that perhaps as a result of the bombings we should keep foreigners out. My belief initially was that it was red-knecked terrorism. It was obvious to me almost straight away after 9-11 that that was Al Quaeda. It was also obvious to me that Iraq had no chemical weapons because our very own experts had visited Iraq and were satisfied with the situation. However it was not obvious to me that the bombings were Al Quaeda, or…

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    8. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to Caroline Copley

      I forgot to say that about Cronulla, the connection there was I was saying Jones' is good at whipping up racist sentiment for example by egging on the bullies who fought the Muslims about dominance on the Cronulla beach. So there was actually some continuity to what I was saying.
      However now I think that beaches may have a hell of a lot more to it, and to make sure you think I am exactly like Alan Jones,
      "let's get rid of all the male chauvinist pigs"
      But I am not at all sure they are just restricted to the Muslim community, or to any ethnic community.

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    9. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Caroline Copley

      What you've done there, Carolyn is based your understanding of his comments on your own beliefs about the man. You've got no actual evidence to support your assertion that "Jones' assertion seems to be based on xenophobia". (In his case, I do tend to agree with you, however.) Maybe the thing to be gained from this is not to jump to conclusions (or at least to keep them to yourself until the facts are in) otherwise, assumed motivations aside, you end up sounding like Alan Jones. Your final comment undermines the humour of the preceding quote and really does nothing to disuade a reader from identifying you as the other side of the Alan Jones coin. Your previous use of the simplistic left-right wing dichotomy (along with the implication that one is 'good' & the other is 'bad') only serves to heighten the effect.

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  3. Terry Ryan

    Economist

    I accept the heartfelt traumas that the author has experienced. There is no doubt a deep emotional experience for him.

    However, this website is meant to produce the latest developments in academic thinking, not pure speculation with zero evidence as with this article.

    This website should not be chasing immediacy of reporting, but providing a considered analytical framework for analysis and discussion.

    If the editor wants to be a journalist, let him get a job in journalism.

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    1. Jennifer Lee

      Lecturer in Creative Writing, Gender Studies and Literary Studies at Victoria University

      In reply to Terry Ryan

      This article does analyse, provide evidence of logical thought, link to other relevant events, and provide a valuable perspective that is informed by personal experience. Academic writing includes autoethnographic writing, where the experiences of the self are used to contexualise the broader evidence, and it is OK for journalism and the Conversation to use this as a form of evidence-based writing.

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  4. John Campbell

    farmer

    The rise and rise of fascism, particularly religious fascism seems to be a product of our current societies and shows unfortunately no signs of abating.
    The certainty that 'you are right' combined with that often right wing characteristic of moral outrage is a dangerous combination that can easily turn to violence. It is also often fueled by to much of the media who often attempt to create 'moral outrage' as a technique.

    Given also, that tool for the lazy and unprincipled politician - hate and…

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  5. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    Thank you, David Malet, for well considered article. I too wonder if the bombings were from home grown terrorists - just because the timing was synchronised doesn't automatically point the finger at al-Qaeda, it is simply effective strategy.

    To use a phrase I personally loathe, in the fullness of time, we will have answers.

    Until then the knot in our guts will tighten because there but for the grace of (insert deity of choice) go the unharmed.

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  6. Kate Newton

    logged in via email @ymail.com

    Good lord, man you have been a bit close for comfort on too many occasions! What's the probability of that? No wonder you decided to live at the arse-end of the earth (to cite Paul Keating). No offence, Melburnians - it applies to all Oz I think.

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  7. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Sincere commiserations David Malet. Yes you have had a remarkable number of close calls. Perhaps that's why you came to be the Director of the Centre for the Study of Homeland Security?

    Too true, the US enemy base is increasing incrementally both from outside the country from the effects of AIPAC Zionist lobby wars for Israel in the Middle East and at the same time, from severely alienated citizens from within who have been dispossessed by and disgruntled from the effects of extreme policies…

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    1. Kate Newton

      logged in via email @ymail.com

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Sadly Pat Moore "gardener" I partly agree with you. But I was trying to cheer him up a bit!

      Because we have China screwing us down as well there are alternative scenarios here - see Hugh White in the SMH (sorry for swearing) yesterday.

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    2. Caroline Copley

      student

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Hmm, you left out the main game.
      The Immigration Bill which was to grant citizenship to millions of Latinos was due in Congress this week.
      I am an Australian Republican who wishes to remove any reference to the monarchy from our Constitution etc. As such I think you could describe me as somewhat nationalistic or patriotic.
      In fact, I can even see the nationalistic cause of the IRA, which was not so much a religious fight as a nationalist one, even if it became that way. Good on the Irish for sticking to their guns.
      But does that mean I agree with Alan Jones when he responded to the bombings that perhaps we should stop taking in so many foreign nationals??
      You dropped the ball a bit because what patriotism means or should mean is at the heart of this.
      You managed to get the rest of the list though! Maybe you will have an aha moment shortly!

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  8. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Some fanatic i would guess, Home grown variant, with electronic ties to others, sharing his beliefs. Those of narrow minds, and little understanding.

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  9. David Malet

    Associate Director and Fellow of the Melbourne School of Government and Senior Lecturer in International Relations at University of Melbourne

    Hi everyone - thank you all for your comments, even the haters.

    Normally, I like to give everyone else their say and stay out of it, only jumping in if I have made some factual error. In fact, although no one has called me on it yet, I did just that: Only 2 planes on 9/11 left from Boston. I should know that because the 2nd American Airlines Flight, #77 from Washington Dulles to LAX, the one that hit the Pentagon, was the one I always took home to visit my family in LA. The airline used a different…

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  10. Caroline Copley

    student

    Thankyou for your personal insight into your experiences.
    As a person who has not directly experienced anything as horrid in my life I can afford to be objective, and as a scientist, and something of an "old left-winger" I can provide the following things that I think may be pertinent:
    1/ Patriot Day (2) + Immigration Bill (2)
    2+2=4. This is person(s) making a protest against the allowing of illegal Latinos to gain citizenship.
    2/ The above makes this a racist rightwing demonstration of their…

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