The Mytilenian Debate and Us

Published: March 12, 2013
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The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI

The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI

In Book III of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides records the “The Mytilenian Debate”, an event that occurred in 427 BC, roughly a year after the revolt against Athens and its allies by Mytilene and three other city-states on the island of Lesbos. The debate, fraught with questions of survival, politics and ethics, is a text that is as relevant to us today as it was then.

To cut to the chase, the Mytilenians revolted against Athens after being egged on by Sparta. Athens had been alerted to the impending revolt by a faction within Mytilene and they despatched forces to confront the Mytilenians before the latter were fully ready for an armed confrontation. With food supplies depleted, surrounded by Athenian forces, isolated and defeated, the Mytilenians had to surrender to negotiate.

Athens would have none of it; the only concession that could be granted was for Mytilene to send a delegation to Athens to seek mercy and compassion. The Athenian general Paches guaranteed that he would hold his hand until Athens reached a decision. Off go the nearly thousand men, along with Salaethus, the Spartan who had arrived to help Mytilene but had failed. Debate began in Athens on what to do with the Mytilenians. The decision was to decimate the male population and sell women and children into slavery. The Spartan had been executed on arrival but once this decision had been taken, the nearly thousand Mytilenians having come to Athens to seek mercy were also put to the sword. A trireme was despatched to Mytilene to execute the orders of the assembly.

The next day, however, Athens woke up to the brutality of its actions. Another debate ensued with Cleon, the ruthless statesman, taking a position against democracy and chiding people for cherishing doubts rather than focusing on what was required to survive. He was countered by Diodotus, who challenged the idea of butchering people as a means of deterrence and pleaded that compassion is what builds alliances and would help strengthen Athens. For him, the fundamental question in deciding the fate of the Mytilenians was not whether the latter were guilty of revolt but whether Athens was making the correct decision for itself.

The second debate led to the assembly changing its earlier decision.

What brings forth this tale from 428 BC? The answer is that we have long been talking about the crisis of the state. I wonder if it is time to look at the crisis of society, of who we are or more appropriately, what we have become; not just the leaders, both religious and political, but the people. Whether in our avowed love for religion, we have not all but lost the very religion and the compassion it is supposed to instil?

Mobs are mobs. They loot, burn and lynch. They are the same everywhere. The famous scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar about Cinna the poet and Cinna the conspirator has become clichéd. But we also thrive on a big, fat lie: that we are Muslims, the followers of the Prophet (pbuh), and, therefore, a cut above the rest. Well, let this poppycock be buried once and for all. We are as good or bad as the rest and, because we are impotent for the most part in the broader historical scheme that informs the world today, we are worse.

We berate our leaders constantly and much of what we say about them is true. But what about the awam, the average Joes and Janes? The fact is that the awam are as stupid, ungenerous, uncouth and petty liars as the leaders. I have no idea why our discussions about the leaders are conducted in a way that gives the utterly false impression that we, as a people, are angels stuck with an evil leadership.

Where did the mob in Lahore come from? Who is attacking shrines and imambargahs, if not the pious awam? Reports from Karachi talked about an Ahmadi having died in the bomb attack and rescue workers refusing to pick up his body. Now I am assuming that the rescue workers could not have known that one body belonged to an Ahmadi. And if my assumption is correct, based on what a reporter friend said to me, then the local people must have told them so. And if that is correct, and if the mohalla largely belonged to the Shia, then it won’t be wrong to assume that someone from the Shia community identified the person. Or, worse, both the local Shia and Sunni did.

This, then, raises a question that should be obvious: how can a people who have themselves been the target of hate use the same discriminatory approach against another community that has been constitutionally ex-communicated? What kind of people would do this, lose empathy for another despite being under attack themselves; use one argument against the attackers and turn the entire logic of that very argument on its head and exclude another, not just from religion, but from the pale of humanity itself, even in death?

Answer: “normal” people; average Pakistanis; people going about the business of life; you and me.

As Diodotus said millennia ago, the fundamental question is not about someone’s guilt but whether the decisions we take are good for us. Do we serve the ends of justice or revenge? Do our decisions inculcate in us humanity or make us bestial. I don’t have to answer this question.

Finally, look at another irony. There’s a blasphemy law. Much has been said about its flaws and its abuse. Yet, if there is a law, and if someone has been booked under it, what right do people have to take the law into their hands and banish an entire community from their homes? Clearly, as emerging reports indicate, there’s more to the incident than meets the eye. And if those reports are correct, then it’s the mob and the instigators who have blasphemed.

Do we have it in us to have a Mytilenian Debate? I don’t think so.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (32)

  • Solomon2
    Mar 12, 2013 - 10:39PM

    “…For him, the fundamental question in deciding the fate of the Mytilenians was not whether the latter were guilty of revolt but whether Athens was making the correct decision for itself.
    *
    “Nations are not authorised, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.”

    Keynes, John Maynard. Essays in Persuasion (Kindle Locations 332-333). Norton. Kindle Edition.

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  • Hella
    Mar 12, 2013 - 11:14PM

    Superbly written.

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  • Raj
    Mar 12, 2013 - 11:24PM

    We are as good or bad as the rest

    The sooner Pakistanis understand this, the better it is for their future.

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  • Raj
    Mar 12, 2013 - 11:30PM

    Answer: “normal” people; average Pakistanis; people going about the business of life; you and me.
    Do we have it in us to have a Mytilenian Debate? I don’t think so.

    You have made some brave confessions here. Many readers may not agree.

    However from a neutral standpoint its never enough worse to initiate a change. Hope enough Pakistanis will come forward to take that responsibility.

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  • Avtar
    Mar 12, 2013 - 11:51PM

    Excellent analogy! The tragedy in Pakistan is that certain Sunni groups have taken the law in their hands to achieve the results they want (use force to seize the property of minorities). It is true what right does the law give to the people to take the law in their hands. In Pakistan, the govt. has granted holiday to its citizens to engage in activities of alleged ‘blasphemous’ acts that occurred in other countries.

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  • Maula Jutt
    Mar 12, 2013 - 11:57PM

    We should admit that the police handled the situation to minimize the damage. The burnt houses are being repaired. No one died. Badami Bagh incident is not about blasphemy alone. It is a signal to the ruling elite to change their ways. Iran, Turkey and Egypt have seen power shifting to Islamic parties. There lies the real question. Is Pakistan heading toward an Islamist order?

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  • Rex Minor
    Mar 13, 2013 - 12:08AM

    We have no time for Greek mythologies. The law of Blesphamy in Pakistan is blesphamic itself and was put in by the nonmuslim Brits. It is the parliamentarians responsibility to rescind it, annul it and let the community leaders be held responsible for the citizen rights and responsibiities and to handle undesirable social behavours at local level. Anyone, who disturbs social peace should be punished with community services. In additition, the excommunication of a section of muslims by the parliament is blesphamic and unislamic. No human has the authority to confirm or annul the muslimhood of any. Muslim simply means that the individual PROMISES to follow the tenets of Islam and to live the life of a muslim. Glory is to God, we are all sinners and have no right to judge others muslimness..

    Rex Minor

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  • MSS
    Mar 13, 2013 - 12:25AM

    A good write up but also use too distant examples from an alien era and alien people.
    People have been brought up on a diet of hate. Everybody has come to a stage where the person believes that nobody else has a right to live, think, eat, meet, work, talk, walk, worship, kinship, leadership in a way different to him. Since he is not educated, patient, and impartial enough to have a decent discussion, he want to settle all arguments in the only way he is familiar with; violence.
    The bacteria of hate has truned a sweet cauldron of milk into very sour yoghurt. The way forward is to dilute, discard and drain and start afresh (with new milk) and keep it cool. Pakistan’s course of action from now on will be a case study for many social scientists.

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  • gp65
    Mar 13, 2013 - 12:28AM

    “What kind of people would do this, .. and exclude another, not just from religion, but from the pale of humanity itself, even in death?”

    The same kind of people who descrated the 100 Ahmadi graves.

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  • ashok
    Mar 13, 2013 - 12:30AM

    There is a saying in India:

    Yatha Raja; Tatha Praja (AS IS KING SO IS HIS SUBJECTS)

    If kings (the establishment, army, ISI and politicians, any and all in case of Pakistan) do not follow the law or misuse/abuse the law, they encourage the public to do the same.

    If laws are not framed for the greater good of the entire society, they end up harming it more such as Blasphemy.

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  • Dushmann
    Mar 13, 2013 - 1:09AM

    The fact is that the awam are as stupid, ungenerous, uncouth and petty liars

    Next question should be :how and why did the awam become like that?
    .
    Where did the mob in Lahore come from? Who is attacking shrines and imambargahs, if not the pious awam?

    Answer- reports said the mob predominantly consisted of Pashtun migrant labourers. they were incited by sermon of the mullah at sermon after Friday namaz.

    obviously they are illiterate /semiliterate poor people. fed with madrassa education, brainwashed at local mosque since childhood. or in case of those who are educated, grew up reading textbooks filled with hate and lies.

    Now next question: who kept generations of them uneducated? who diverted money that could have been used for education and welfare to finance wars and misadventures? who created thousands of brainwashing madrassas and made them into pious zombies to be used as strategic assets?

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  • Absar
    Mar 13, 2013 - 1:44AM

    I don’t know why this column reminds me of late Ardeshir Cowasjee. Wonderful write up yet again, EC!

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  • asif
    Mar 13, 2013 - 2:21AM

    Writer is fond of using of stories from greek mythology and roman imperium to make his point. Republic should be made mandatory reading for all college-going folks but we are intimately bound to this land and a great but thoroughly abused religion and need allegories that sprang from this outstanding land of five rivers. Yes, the dystopia is reaching a maniacal proportion and yes there will be blood but we hope it does tear us – only make us stronger and better.
    I take exception with the tone of the indian trolls and their barely suppressed schadenfreude and i have this to say to them – we don’t look to you for inspiration and guidance and even mere advice. We have Europeans, Iranians, Turks and Arabs for that – real culture, history and accomplishment in historical sense. You have been recipients of history. In fact some of fatal flaws, though to less degree, are the ones that we inherited from you – mean-spirited-ness and cowardice.

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  • Riaz Ahmad
    Mar 13, 2013 - 2:58AM

    Ijaz Haider has touched the subject but refrained to get to the core of it. Truth is very bitter, but it has got to be faced. Just to sum up in few sentences; Pakistan is a society and culture where ethics and morals have become as extinct as a dodo. Law has been degraded by turning it in to a trading commodity to be bought and sold openly. Anything rule or order based is treated as a nuisance, unnecessarily interfering in daily life. Islam has been debased to a set of rituals and rites to be performed end of the day, when life has become a state of endless immoral existence. Culture has made it impossible to live and conduct daily affairs in a moral and virtues way. This culture of privilege and arrogance treats the poor and down trodden in a disdainful and rude manner. Hypocrisy has been turned in to fine art. Pakistani society has been living in a state chaos, corruption and lawlessness for such a long time, it has now become a true dog eat dog society, the results are there for all to see everywhere.

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  • Raz
    Mar 13, 2013 - 4:46AM

    An unconvincing article Ejaz.

    There have been many reports from the Abbas town blast from people who are closely involved with relief work, but the Ahmadi story is a first. It may not be true. But assuming that it is, why is it so surprising? Victims are also sinners. They are also often perpetrators themselves. But to use this incident to tarnish an entire community (I could be wrong in reading it this way) for not making the obvious connection between their victimhood and another community’s victimhood is unfair to say the least. And even if true, this is by no means the only example where such connections have not been made. History is replete with victimized groups making victims out of others simply because, as I alluded to above, those victims too have prejudices.

    The other point is this: just as it is clearly ridiculous to speak of a ‘pious awam,’ or the ‘moderate majority’ if you will, it is equally disingenuous to tarnish the collective for subscribing to reactionary beliefs. Talk of a ‘crisis of society’ and looking at ‘what ‘we’ have become’ is an intellectually lazy approach to this problem. Its true that prejudice is rife in our society, but then again, there are degrees and varieties of prejudices. All cant be viewed through the prism of increasing fundamentalism. If we are to do this, then the battle is already lost. Instead, its important to complicate this view by rooting it in historically specific terms. Also, this is where the state becomes crucial because its the state which is meant to ensure that those prejudices are not expressed through violence. What Pakistan is witnessing is a collapse of state authority, which is perhaps one reason why mobs wish to lynch those accused of blasphemy instead of letting them go through the judicial process. Like other cases of lynching and vendettas (blasphemy and otherwise), its because there is little or no faith in the judicial process. That’s not to suggest of course that the blasphemy law is correct. There is no doubt that it is an odious law and the sooner its done away with, the better it will be.

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  • RAW is WAR
    Mar 13, 2013 - 4:54AM

    We are as good or bad as the rest

    no sir, you guys are worst.

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  • Mar 13, 2013 - 6:16AM

    The laws are are never framed for the peoples benefit – rather they are nearly always framed for a select few how they can hold on to power and benefit themselves…

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  • Agha
    Mar 13, 2013 - 7:07AM

    This article though well written and ambitious in nature shares no central purpose with the Mytilenian Debate which is almost entirely focussed on the harsh decision a state faces in times of war, particularly external conflict. The idea being that decisions which may not be “good” may still be purposeful. This article attempts to draw from this historical context a theme of anarchy one that is indeed prevalent in Shakespeare’s presentation of the death of Cinna the Poet but not in the Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian War. Julius Caesar is preoccupied by the inter conflict a state is consumed by in the face of “civil strife”. Perhaps the author would have done himself more justice if he restricted himself to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Plutarch after all speaks on many occasions of the ‘democratic anarchy’ it would have been better to have cited him correctly.

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  • Dee Cee
    Mar 13, 2013 - 8:56AM

    @asif: “We have Europeans, Iranians, Turks and Arabs for that – real culture, history and accomplishment in historical sense. You have been recipients of history.” Although your intentions are noble, they are marred by racial sycophancy and prejudice. “Europeans, Iranians, Turks and Arabs” all prospered when they became masterful ‘recipients of history’: Arabs learnt from Greeks and Hindus, Europeans from Arabs, and Iran, like India, has been at the cross roads of great cultures. You’ll remember that the great Islamic civilization declined when it stopped being a “recipient” of awail sciences. Great flourishes of Islamic progress in India, in Sufism and in the project of modernizing Islam at Aligarh, happened because certain open-minded leaders who were “recipients” of perspectives from Hinduism and European sciences respectively. History does not remember Aurengzebe for his contributions to learning, it remembers Prince Dara for his Majma-ul-Bahrain. So choose wisely, friend, before you follow the mistakes of Al-Ghazali. Best wishes! :)

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  • Roni
    Mar 13, 2013 - 9:03AM

    Very bold and to the point Op Ed. In Pakistan people are mentally and physically lazy and there is no shame in being like that. The obvious examples are hockey and cricket teams. In our national game we have been sliding downhill since it is taken up by other nations. Same is the case in cricket. We cannot compete on physical and mental level for any length of time. We have excuses for all our failures. We lie and hide facts. When my own mother was near death from cancer my siblings refused to tell her the truth despite my urgings. That way they could keep all the belongings to themselves and not share with others living overseas. Parents do not write wills because they do not think it is their time and leave big problems for the kids.
    In the west the doctor tells the patient the truth and the whole truth. Nobody knows it before the patient. Instead of telling the patient that you are very sick we tell her that you would be fine. The same is the case with the country. It is sick and very sick. If things do not change it is not going to survive no matter what. The country would be worse than Afghanistan was.

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  • wonderer
    Mar 13, 2013 - 9:08AM

    Why must the author sound like a baby shedding copious tears and yelling at the maximum volume, sitting right in the middle of a pool of spilt milk? He has been at it for many a week now. What purpose is served by stating facts (not correctly all the time) known to every reader of ET and connecting them to some event, unknown to most, from the past?

    I looked without success for even the slightest hint of WHY we are where we are; WHERE did we go wrong in the past; WHO was responsible; WHAT can be done now; and WHO can help. The time for crying is gone for ever. It is time for ACTION. Let us have some ideas, PLEASE.

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  • Indian Wisdom
    Mar 13, 2013 - 10:18AM

    “Reports from Karachi talked about an Ahmadi having died in the bomb attack and rescue workers refusing to pick up his body. How can a people who have themselves been the target of hate use the same discriminatory approach against another community that has been constitutionally ex-communicated? What kind of people would do this, lose empathy for another despite being under attack themselves; use one argument against the attackers and turn the entire logic of that very argument on its head and exclude another”

    Unfortunately this is simply the manifestation of the founding principle/ideology of this unfortunate country: the “Two Nation theory”…..the assumption that to safeguard the interests of one community entire society/nation should be divided in two (Later three) parts and if this partition is not undertaken the nation ought to be destroyed. There is no hope till this philosophy is negated in Pakistan and the truth that a nation is made up of diverse groups of people is accepted and celebrated by the “normal” people………

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  • T R Khan
    Mar 13, 2013 - 12:47PM

    The only way forward is to separate the State and Religion.

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  • Anthony Edwards
    Mar 13, 2013 - 1:08PM

    I don’t want to be racist but this shows a extraordinary level of erudition for a Pakistani. Actually I have never come across a Pakistani as well read as you appear to be. And I have met literally thousands of Pakistanis. Really unexpected. Just would not expect a Pakistani to know about the Peloponnesian War and make a connection with a faraway pagan people living thousands of years ago.

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  • windcock
    Mar 13, 2013 - 3:17PM

    @asif:

    “We have Europeans, Iranians, Turks and Arabs for that – real culture, history and accomplishment in historical sense. You have been recipients of history. In fact some of fatal flaws, though to less degree, are the ones that we inherited from you – mean-spirited-ness and cowardice.”

    YEs, it is indeed annoying when some Indian commenters post their snotty, up-on-the-pedestal trash. As an Indian, I’m embarrassed about it. Every population has a fair share of its idiots. Coming to that you conform to that segment of the Pakistani population, with its head in the sewer pit of a disastrous history and bottom up to retrograde philosophies that belonged to the desert a long time ago.

    If you were honest to yourself, or if the enlightened system you inherited (you did not build ANY yet) taught you any critical thinking skills, answer this question: Where were you and your genetic forebears in 427 BC. Do you know what was happening on the damned or hollowed ground you stand on right now? The problem with some Indians these days is the vulgar, repulsive self-congratulation (no case for it, really) and the misplaced pride. The problem with many Pakistanis is the absolute lack of honest introspection. They are both united in one common trait though: an absolute lack of skepticism. I suspect they might share something genetic. What do you think, the Great Conquerer. Or, should one call you the Most Benevolent One?

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  • Burjor
    Mar 13, 2013 - 4:50PM

    Pakistan society has not “developed” we are where perhaps Europe was during the middle ages, wild. There is a total disconnect in our society. The laws the courts, the judges, the prosecution, the witnesses, the accused, the law enforcers, the law makers. The above article describe the recent events, what about not so distant past?. About 2 years back Salman Taseer was shot, because he wished to discuss, debate the laws on blasphemy, we all know what happened to him. His murderer was made a hero. By both the commom people and the polictical/ religious parties. There were thousands of people to support the murder. Again people have been burnt alive, people have been beaten to death, the list is endless.
    Pakistan being divided and sub-divided into so many groupings and sub-groupings, is impossible to govern. What the state apparatus wishes for is only a pretense, wishing that the common people buy what they wish to say and do not become too violent, within the limits of what the LEA can control.

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  • Adil Mansoor
    Mar 13, 2013 - 5:03PM

    You, sir, are a scholar that our society doesn’t see in you.

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  • Stranger
    Mar 13, 2013 - 5:36PM

    What kind of people will do this ? – Uneducated and unemployed people will do this . Give the man a job and he will be busy feeding his family and working from morning till night. He will have little time for all these activities like looting / lynching etc., Education and employment give focus to a man.

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  • curious
    Mar 13, 2013 - 7:21PM

    OK.

    So the Mitilenians, egged by Spartans, revolted against the Athenians.

    And,

    The Athenians debated the ‘appropriate punishment’ for their ‘guilt’.

    Now.

    It is proposed to juxtapose this with the Lahore incident, and have a Mytilenian debate.

    But,

    What are the Christians of Lahore guilty of? Are we assuming that,egged on by some party or the other, they are guilty of crimes against the state or the crime of ‘blasphemy’?

    If not,

    What is to be debated? Please?

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  • Acorn Guts
    Mar 13, 2013 - 8:08PM

    @Anthony Edwards: Is it a surprise really? We are nation of 180million strong and you’ve made your mind up after having met only a few hundred. Prepare to be surprised again and again sir. This nation has far much to it than what the media shows you.

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  • Seema Ulanghan
    Mar 14, 2013 - 2:21AM

    @author — For the first time I am encountering sound bytes from you that reflect a universal humanistic outlook. For the first time I am finding your voice shorn of the prejudice and antipathy vis a vis the constructed “other” that have tinted your writings in the past. I assume the sane and wise realizations contained in this piece of yours betoken an awakening transcending your previous ideological affiliations. The ancient Sanskrit speaking Rishis of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization declared “yatha raja, tatha praja” meaning kings or rulers beget a society and subjects that mirror them. Inverting the dictum, “yatha praja, tatha raja” would mean that a people or nation ultimately gets the kinds of rulers they deserve. Only a transformation through the liberation of the minds of the populace can save pakistan now.Recommend

  • Gp65
    Mar 14, 2013 - 5:59AM

    @curious:
    Your post cuts to the chase and makes it clear how false the attempted equivalence between the 2 instances is.

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