Modern Terror as Apocalyptic Violence
For over four thousand years, Megiddo, a hill in northern Israel, has been the site of many battles. Ancient cities were established there to serve as a fortress on the plain of Jezreel to guard a mountain pass. As Megiddo was built and rebuilt, one city upon the other, a mound or hill was formed. The Hebrew word "Armageddon" means "hill of Megiddo." In English, the word has come to represent battle itself. The last book in the New Testament of the Bible designates Armageddon as the assembly point in the apocalyptic setting of God’s final and conclusive battle against evil. . . (FBI 1999, 3).
These somewhat melodramatic words are not found in a biblical commentary or a religious pamphlet; they inaugurate a strategic assessment report undertaken by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation under the title Project Megiddo. The report was released in 1999, when the FBI expected an increase of apocalyptically inspired domestic terrorism in the year 2000. The underlying impetus for Project Megiddo was the disastrous 1993 raid of the compound of the apocalyptic Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, as well as several attacks by far-right activists, which had severely disturbed the American public and alarmed security forces. The most severe of these attacks was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 and injured almost 700 people. As investigations and academic studies later showed, the primary perpetrator Timothy McVeigh—like other far-right terrorists—was inspired by the racist novel The Turner Diaries, published pseudonymously in 1978 by far-right leader William L. Pierce. McVeigh had followed in detail the description of a car bomb attack on a federal building that he found in the book. However, The Turner Diaries is more than just a terrorist manual in the guise of a novel; it is also an apocalypse. To some extent it emulates the narrative of ancient apocalypses, for instance when the hero is granted inspection of a secret book and in an ecstatic vision gains insight into the whole course of human history. The message of the book is clear: individuals who are absolutely committed and ready for the ultimate sacrifice can set global processes in motion. A single terrorist action may bring about a global nuclear Armageddon, after which a new racially pure white world can be built.
In March 1995, four weeks before the Oklahoma attack, members of the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyō released Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. The attack killed 13 and injured about 1,000 people; for the first time in history terrorists had made use of weapons of mass destruction. The ideology of Aum Shinrikyō, based on the teaching of their guru Shōkō Asahara, draws from Tibetan Buddhism and a variety of other forms of Asian spirituality. However, Asahara claimed that he had also turned to the Apocalypse of the Christian Bible, as result of divine inspiration: "My guru, the god Shiva, suddenly said to me: ‘Now is the time to decode the Book of Revelation, receive its message, and start Aum’s salvation work’" (Lifton 1999, 47). Consequently, the gas attack was intended as a "self-assigned project of making Armageddon happen" (Lifton 1999, 4).
On October 3, 2014, William McCants, fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, published an article entitled ISIS Fantasies of an Apocalyptic Showdown in Northern Syria. McCants claims that in the ideology of the Islamic State, the town Dabiq, located northeast of Aleppo and close to the Turkish border, has assumed the same significance as Armageddon in the Christian apocalyptic narrative. According to a prophecy ascribed to Muhammad and taken from the hadith, Dabiq will see the final showdown between the forces of Islam and the forces of Christianity. This prophecy was taken up by ISIS leader Abu Umar al-Bagdadi. Accordingly, since July 2014, ISIS has been publishing a propaganda magazine in multiple languages entitled Dabiq, and claims that the area of Dabiq must first be purified of treacherous Sunnis before the final battle can take place (McCants 2014). McCants’s article was not the first publication on apocalyptic motives behind Islamist violence, but it specifically substantiated a statement that was made six weeks earlier, on August 21, by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a press conference at the Pentagon he said: "This [ISIS] is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated" (Ryan 2014). In other words, the apocalyptic character of ISIS has become part of the rationale behind US military engagement.
From the perspective of these episodes it is unsurprising that a number of recent comparative studies have used the category of "apocalyptic violence" as a common denominator behind various forms of terrorism and sectarian violence. In his seminal study of the Aum sect Robert J. Lifton made claims that go far beyond the Japanese case: The impulses that drove Asahara and Aum are by no means unique to him and his group. Rather, Aum was part of a loosely connected still-developing global subculture of apocalyptic violence—of violence conceived in sweeping terms as a purification and renewal of humankind through the total or near-total destruction of the planet (Lifton 1999, 4). This agrees with the findings of the arguably most popular comparative study of religious terror, Marc Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God. We may see the Oklahoma and Tokyo attacks as regional events with specifically regional political, social, and cultural background. Yet the terrorists see their actions integrated in a scenario of a global war between the forces of good and evil.
Totalitarianism as Apocalyptic Politics
In 1938, when Austria was incorporated into the Nazi empire, the Staatslehre instructor Eric Voegelin (1901–1985) was removed from his post at Vienna University because of his political views. Voegelin escaped detention only by a hurried emigration to the USA. He had seen the deeply religious fanaticism of Hitler’s supporters with his own eyes. In the same year he published his influential essay The Political Religions, which is to this day regarded as a groundbreaking work in the study of totalitarianism. In the preface he states that National Socialism can only be effectively fought if its "root in religiousness" is recognized. Modern mass movements were to be seen as inner-worldly "political religions." Like others he referred to the medieval apocalyptic visionary Joachim of Fiore, who had prophesied a coming Third Age of the Holy Spirit, an age of fulfillment and social perfection that would emerge after the tribulations caused by the Antichrist. Voegelin claimed that Joachim’s apocalyptic speculations "form the historical basis for the apocalyptic dynamics in modern political religions" (Voegelin 2000, 19–73, at p. 51). The French philosopher Raymond Aron came to surprisingly similar conclusions, describing the idea of totalitarian revolution as the new Armageddon of the "secular religions" (Aron 2003, 161–242, at pp. 179f).
The Jewish philosopher Karl Löwith (1897–1973) personally experienced the masses enthusiastically welcoming Hitler, including the students incited by his beloved teacher Martin Heidegger. Soon after Hitler’s rise to power Löwith was forced into emigration. It remained his lifetime project to understand the origins of modern man’s historical existence, a historical existence that had alienated man from cosmic existence and led to fatal attempts at regaining existential meaning through progressivist eschatologies. On his way to the theological origins of this historical existence he encountered Joachim of Fiore and recognized his work as the historical link between the apocalyptic lore and modern ideology. In his seminal Meaning in History he wrote:
Joachim’s expectation of a new age of "plenitude" . . . was taken over, five centuries later, by a philosophical priesthood, which interpreted the process of secularization in terms of a "spiritual" realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. As an attempt at realization, the spiritual pattern of Lessing, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel could be transposed into the positivistic and materialistic schemes of Comte and Marx. The third dispensation of the Joachites reappeared as a third International and a third Reich, inaugurated by a dux or a Führer who was acclaimed as a savior and greeted by millions with Heil! (Löwith 1949, 159).
The British historian Norman Cohn (1915–2007), who grew up in a Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism, became an expert on the preconditions of persecution and genocide. By combining religious and social history, he tried to understand the instances of violent fanaticism, especially anti-Jewish pogroms. His bestselling study The Pursuit of the Millennium suggests that "revolutionary millennialism" is a civilizational constant reaching back into the early Middle Ages and emerging from a blend of socioeconomic disintegration and apocalyptic agitation (Cohn 1993).
Many more studies could be adduced that ascribe the most violent and disastrous modern ideologies to a continuing legacy of apocalypticism. Yet, at this point we should ask: Is all that convincing? Some basic paradoxes of the above claims have been almost completely overlooked: How can modern narratives of progress draw on the apocalypses, if apocalypses traditionally offer a narrative of decline? How can activist and revolutionary movements be called apocalyptic, if apocalypses traditionally dissuade their readers from any engagement in politics? If the ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries result from a secularization of the apocalypse, why are the apocalyptic activists of the early twenty-first century suddenly religious again? How is it possible that, after two millennia and despite multiple religious, political, social, and cultural transformations, the symbolic lore of the apocalypses is still with us today? A historical overview may help to clarify these issues.
Transformations of the Apocalypse: A Historical Overview
Apocalypticism emerges from messianic despair. Ancient apocalypses, such as the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, but also a large number of apocryphal texts, react to the political situation brought about by the Hellenistic and Roman empires. They were written by Jewish believers who had given up on traditional messianic beliefs, after they diagnosed—quite realistically—that a restitution of Israel’s political autonomy was unlikely. Yet these believers were unwilling to give up faith in the God of their fathers who had promised his chosen people a splendid political future. They strongly resented their enemies who did not even know of the true God but nevertheless were allowed to defile and eventually destroy the temple on Mount Zion: "these nations, which are reputed as nothing, domineer over us and devour us," complains the author of the apocryphal Fourth Book of Ezra (4 Ezra 6:57).
Excluded from political offices and alienated from a Hellenized society, the apocalyptic writers devoted their intellectual energy to describing resentful scenarios which had been revealed to them in visionary experiences. These scenarios reacted to the ecumenical claim of the Hellenistic empires to dominate the whole inhabited world and adopted an equally universalistic scope, in contrast to traditional messianism. The apocalyptic visionaries diagnosed that the world was so totally corrupted that any engagement in politics or resistance had become meaningless; only a transformation of the entirety of reality would ultimately bring bliss to the believers and ruin to their enemies.
Apocalypses are symbolic expressions of "proleptic existence," an existential attitude where the alienation from present reality is almost complete and all meaning of life rests on the anticipation (Greek: prolepsis) of a future transformed reality (cf. Riedl 2010). Apocalypsis means a revelatory unveiling of a historical structure of decline, which will culminate in the battle between good and evil at the end of times and Judgment Day. Then will follow the destruction of this world and the dawn of a new world, into which the true believers will be transferred and where they will establish a truly theocratic society, the Heavenly Jerusalem. The future order is represented as a reversal of the present order: those who rule now will then be tortured and killed, whereas those who are now suppressed will then rule with God. At least in part, the bliss of the righteous means to observe and enjoy the torture of the enemy (cf. Ezra 7: 36-9). Ancient apocalyptic narratives are loaded with violence and the reader can grasp the hatred behind the gruesome imagery; yet, the violence is never carried out by humans.
In the Book of Daniel the idol that represents the imperial order of the world is eventually smashed by a stone "cut from a mountain by no human hand" (Daniel 2:45). In the Armageddon of the Book of Revelation angels fight against demonic spirits, accompanied by natural disasters (Revelation 16:13–21). In sum, the war at the end of time, the war which annihilates evil, is fought by superhuman cosmic forces. Therefore, the apocalyptically minded Jews and Christians did not join the anti-imperial revolts, but trusted that God would set things right.
While the authors of the ancient Jewish apocalypses may have been highly educated individuals, Early Christianity brings in a new social element. As an itinerant Jewish preacher, Jesus at times gave fairly traditional apocalyptic sermons (cf. Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21); yet as founder of a community and as an ethical lawgiver he created a new social reality. Based on the recognition of Jesus as Christ the Son of God, who had preceded in resurrection and ascension, his followers came to understand the church as a proleptic community. Especially the foundational letters of the Apostle Paul conceived the church as a community that is set apart from the political environment of the Roman Empire and which lives in anticipation of the commonwealth in heaven (politeuma en ouranois) (Philipians 3:20). At the same time the strong communal experience of the Early Church, especially in times of persecution, gave Christian believers a foretaste of the perfect community to come.
Once Christianity had become the official cult of the Roman Empire and the growing church became increasingly involved in the administration of earthly goods, the apocalyptic interpretation of reality receded, but it never disappeared. On the contrary, during the fierce fights between the emperors and popes from the eleventh century onward, the apocalyptic interpretation of reality massively returned to the center of Western Christianity. However, in the Middle Ages the nature of Christian apocalyptic literature changed in many respects.
The import of Byzantine apocalypses, such as Pseudo-Methodius, allowed for giving the emperors a more positive role, now that they had come to represent Christian society. In the Ludus de Antichristo, for instance, the emperor acts as the universal leader of the faithful who crusades against the Muslims. However, he does not participate in the final battles at the end of time. Instead, after the conquest of Jerusalem, he divests himself of the imperial insignia and lays them down on the Holy Sepulcher, thereby returning his office to Christ. Then Antichrist establishes his universal government. Clearly, there is no space for revolutionary activism in this narrative.
The figure of Antichrist becomes more prominent in medieval apocalyptic literature. However, while earlier medieval apocalypses present him as an actual person, later medieval authors describe a collective Antichrist: "every pope who lives contrary to Christ, just as any perverse person, is commonly said to be Antichrist," writes Jan Huss (Rusconi 1998, 314). This idea remains relevant in modern apocalypticism: All enemies of the faithful are somehow united in a huge conspiracy, forming the body of Antichrist, a perverse imitation of the church as the body of Christ.
Increasingly, unfulfilled expectations, especially with respect to church reform, were projected into this final period until Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202) linked it with the millenarian prophecy of the Book of Revelation (Revelation 20:4). However, while the Book of Revelation presents the millennium as a stage between this world and the next, as a "first resurrection" of the martyrs, Joachim of Fiore spoke of a third age of the world, in which Christian society would achieve perfection. In this way, contrary to earlier accounts, the battle against Antichrist was drawn into the course of human history. Under these conditions concrete enemies could be identified as the representatives of Antichrist, be they the German emperors, the Muslims, or the clerical church. It is even more important that the description of the millennium as an earthly anticipation of heavenly order implied a reinterpretation of the eschatological cataclysm. The transformation of reality was not a cosmic event beyond history; rather it was happening here and now, in the struggles that would bring about the final perfection of church and society. Later Joachite movements, especially the Spiritual Franciscans, experienced severe persecution by the papacy because of their strict interpretation of the vow of poverty. Their intellectual leaders emphasized more than Joachim of Fiore the conflictual and violent character of the transition toward the age of fulfillment.
What also changed as a result was the conception of proleptic community. The Franciscan Spirituals and other Joachite groups no longer just anticipated heavenly society but saw themselves as the vanguard of a future worldly perfection. In the present they were a minority, which had to undergo dreadful tribulations brought about by the onslaught of Antichrist, but ultimately they would prevail and the whole world would follow their egalitarian social model.
Still, none of these apocalyptic authors ever called their readers to violence. This seems to change only around 1420 when in the context of the Hussite rebellion the radical apocalyptic movement of the Taborites emerged. The exact theological grounds of Taborite violence are still understudied; nevertheless there is one element of great relevance. Apparently certain mystical trends within the Taborites—maybe related to the Free Spirit movement—claimed absolute personal purity, to the point of sinlessness. Consequently, some Taborites expected a millennial Eucharist where they would achieve a perfect unification with the returning Christ; together with Christ and the angels they would accomplish the final annihilation of evil.
A thoroughly revolutionary understanding of apocalypticism, which seems so typical for totalitarian movements as well as for modern terrorist groups, emerges only in the early modern period, in the context of the so-called radical reformation. The classical formulation of revolutionary apocalypticism is found in the Sermon to the Princes of the radical reformer Thomas Müntzer (d. 1525). No other text of the early modern period allows for equally penetrating insight into the theological logic of apocalyptic violence, and no other text so explicitly calls its addressees to mass murder. Müntzer essentially suggests that the reformation must be carried out by annihilating everyone who obstructs preaching of the Gospel. "I say with Christ . . . and with the guidance of the whole divine law, that one should kill the godless rulers, especially the monks and the priests who denounce the holy gospel as heresy and yet count themselves the best Christians" (Müntzer 1988, 251).
Müntzer thought that this violent Christ actually spoke to him and that his whole existence was animated by divine will. As in the case of the radical Taborites, the claim of acting in union with God goes very far. Müntzer realized that Christ was about to initiate a revolution against the prevailing forces of Antichrist, that is the corrupted clerics, the scholastic teachers, the monks, the moderate reformers, and all secular rulers who supported them. This meant that the true believers had to act with Christ in carrying out the revolution. From Johannes Tauler and the Dominican mystics Müntzer had learned that true faith meant purifying the inner man, annihilating one’s selfish desires, one’s fear of creatures, and one’s wrong beliefs. Only then would Christ speak to the believer in the abyss of the soul. Yet, Müntzer also believed in the Joachite idea that soon a universal Pentecost would occur and all true believers would receive direct revelation without scriptural or priestly mediation. In other words, the purification of man was not only a personal but also a historical event. As a consequence Müntzer externalized the act of annihilation and encouraged his followers to kill "the enemies of the Gospel."
Moreover, the highly educated Müntzer also combined apocalyptic expectations with humanist ethics. He agreed with other reformers such as John Calvin or Martin Luther that no one could be redeemed who had not been predestined to salvation by the grace of God. Yet to Müntzer predestination was only a potential that remained to be actualized by individual effort. This meant undergoing passion and despair in an imitation of Christ, but it also meant taking up the sword. Referring to Daniel’s prophecy about the crushing of the idol, he remarked that no one should be misled by the biblical words that the stone of destruction was "cut out without human hands." Those who would fail to participate in the destruction of the existing order would be crushed by the stone of revolution. God may have a plan for his people, but the people had to carry it out and make it come true—just as Israel would not have entered the Promised Land if it had not taken up the sword and massacred the inhabitants of Canaan (cf. Joshua 6-11). Here, in Thomas Müntzer’s sermons, we finally find a clear expression of revolutionary apocalypticism, where violent action has become a moral imperative.
Admittedly, there are still several centuries between Thomas Müntzer and modern totalitarianism and terrorism, however, as the Sermon to the Princes shows, nothing more is required to formulate an apocalyptic call to carry out violence and killing. Müntzer’s revolution failed when his army was crushed in the German Peasant’s War. The Puritan revolution in England has shown how activist reformulations of apocalypticism stand at the beginning of the great modern revolutions; even though, of course, they do not fully explain them.
This historical survey has described how, from the outset, apocalyptic sentiments have been based on deeply felt resentment and alienation and how apocalypticism has always implied the global scenario of a war of good against evil. It has also shown how narratives of decline transform into narratives of progress and how determinist quietism transforms into activism. A more comprehensive historical account could also show that secularization is always only partial, that non-secular versions of apocalypticism continue to exist to this day and even regain popularity. The fact that that the apocalyptic symbolic lore expresses "proleptic existence" as one of the basic human possibilities to relate to reality means that it can be reactivated whenever the existential experiences suggest a renewed adequacy of the symbolic complex. The symbolic narratives of modern apocalyptic terror stand in a complex relationship to a wider and growing environment of non-violent apocalyptic spirituality, but they also take on board many elements of totalitarian politics as found in the secular religions (cf. Pellicani 2003). A more comprehensive account could also show how the apocalyptic symbolic lore, at least since the nineteenth century, has spread universally and has amalgamated with a variety of indigenous forms of spirituality. The Chinese Taiping Rebellion, arguably the bloodiest event of the nineteenth century, is a case in point.
Conclusions: Religious Violence and Academic Curricula
In his widely read book Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer excellently describes how the acts of modern terrorists are integrated into larger scenarios of cosmic war. Then he adds: "In many cases these images are not new but are a part of the heritage of religious traditions that stretch back to antiquity" (Juergensmeyer 2003, 149). As we have seen, this analysis requires some qualification. Certainly, the images of cosmic war have ancient origins, yet they have undergone complex processes of reinterpretation, extending over centuries and millennia. And only if these reinterpretations are taken into account does the adaptability of ancient imagery to the narratives of modern terrorists become fully understandable.
For creating a propensity toward violence and terror, apocalyptic faith must be combined with the modern humanist belief that the outcome of events depends on individual choice and action and, in a more general sense, with the idea that human agency and achievement can shape the course of history. Humanism, of course, cannot be reduced to this Promethean claim, but it certainly implies it. Like it or not, the humanist creed of the modern West, annually pronounced at countless graduation ceremonies, that "we can go out into the world and change it," is taken very seriously by the terrorists.
If we compare the two academic discourses outlined above, the postwar discourse on totalitarianism as "secularized apocalypticism" and the more recent discourse on terrorism as "apocalyptic violence," one thing is apparent: While the former is still based on profound historical, philosophical, and theological knowledge, the latter lacks this almost entirely. Certainly, the secularization paradigm has become questionable in our time, but at least it shows some awareness of the transformative process that the apocalyptic-political complex has undergone over two millennia. The concept of "apocalyptic violence," on the contrary, appears to be an analytical category but, in reality, explains very little. It gives the impression that modern terrorist violence is based on an ancient type of religiosity, while, as shown above, activist and revolutionary forms of apocalypticism are modern phenomena and result from a long historical development. In fact, most modern studies of terrorism that employ the category of "apocalyptic violence" completely rely on Norman Cohn’s book from the 1950s, which was written under the impression of the Holocaust. A comparison of the great studies of totalitarianism with the most influential books on religious terrorism shows clearly what has been lost: solid historical knowledge and philosophical reflection.
The contributors to this seminar were asked to also comment on the situation of academic research and education with reference to their areas of interest. Without going into the details of specialized discourses, let me make the following remarks about the field of political science: In political theory, there is a growing awareness that "the political" comprises a lot more than governance, striving for power, institutional orders, electoral processes, and so forth. Rather, all politics presupposes as a framework "the political," the meaning structure of society, which is composed of symbolic complexes articulating the human experiences made over centuries and millennia. These symbolic complexes structure our linguistic universe, in the center as well as on the fringes. Apocalyptic symbolism, as just one example, may appear in a more condensed form in radical movements, but it is also found in the speeches of democratically elected political leaders, and it permeates our whole popular culture.
This means that a true understanding of the logic of political order requires knowledge about the formative periods of symbolic complexes, when their character and the underlying experiences are most clearly discernible. It also requires knowledge about the transformative processes that have allowed these symbolic complexes to enter and form our modern world. Unfortunately, exactly this knowledge has been more and more eliminated from political science curricula in the Western world, or it has been confined to the narrow limits of sub-disciplines. However, a political science that would really aim to be a science of the political could regain the role of the leading science (Leitwissenschaft) that it once had and now has lost. Why not imagine a political science program that teaches the history of political order in diachronic and comparative perspective to all students? Why not a program that from early on encourages students to learn Western and non-Western source languages? Why not a program that goes far beyond the Great Books canons by making students aware of the relevance of sacred texts, of dominant theological and philosophical discourses, and of dissenting undercurrents? A political science thus conceived could much better serve young people who are seeking orientation in our highly complex globalized world.
Yet, even historical approaches are by no means sufficient for understanding phenomena as complex as totalitarianism and terrorism. The research program outlined above could provide a more profound understanding of religious motivations and ideologies behind certain forms of modern violence; however, as Jessica Stern has emphasized, there are also many other factors that matter: education, economy, social stratification, psychological and psychopathological issues, and even the most trivial motives such as greed for political power, land, or money, and wounded masculinity (Stern 2003, xix).
There are reasons why disturbing phenomena like the Islamic State leave us so clueless and why studies of religious violence are so often characterized by superficiality, misleading monocausality, and stunning ignorance. The problem is not so much the neglect of religious factors by the social sciences; this was true only until the 1990s when religion began to return to the center of academic interest. Neither is the primary problem a lack of interdisciplinarity, but rather the fragmentation of academic disciplines into methodological and linguistic provinces. This fragmentation is reinforced by the academic job market and the acceptance policies of peer-review journals.
Today methodological choices often take the form of a confession of faith. As a result quantitative researchers, political sociologists, political economists, scholars of international relations, political theorists, and so forth, can often hardly talk to each other—even though they find themselves in the same political science department. Yet, only a carefully balanced combination of methodological approaches can to do justice to the complexity of phenomena such as terrorism. The fragmentation of disciplines is also the reason why many well-meaning interdisciplinary projects fail; scholars just don’t find a common language. Cooperation between disciplines presupposes methodological and terminological flexibility within the disciplines.
It is no longer necessary to warn political science to take religion seriously. Religion is taken seriously. What is needed is an educational program with a much more ambitious scope, even and especially on the graduate level, a program that allows for a problem-oriented and meaningful combination of multiple approaches and avoids premature specialization. One magnificent error has become almost dogma in political science as well as other disciplines, namely the claim that one needs to master methodology first before one approaches certain phenomena. Yet truly pathbreaking studies were always built on the awareness that the research subject must determine the method and not the other way round. Programs in the humanities and the social sciences that wish to educate innovative and original young researchers who are up to facing the challenges of our time should return to this insight as a basis for curricular reflections and reforms.
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