Trayvon Martin – Race, Guns, or Pride?

The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman earlier this year has brought out the usual political punditry.  Everyone “knows” the “real” reason Martin took a bullet, even though they can’t seem to agree on what that real reason actually was.  As with theology, so with politics: the conclusion to which one comes seems more easily predicted by one’s prior beliefs, than by the facts in the case.  Conventional wisdom says Trayvon was killed because he was a black kid in a hoodie.  There’s probably some truth in that, though I suspect it’s more accurate to say he was confronted because he was a black kid in a hoodie, and his death was the result of an unfortunate escalation of the confrontation.  Bill Cosby and CNN commentators counter that the proliferation of guns and gun rights are also to blame, perhaps more so.  They too have an element of the truth…certainly if George Zimmerman wasn’t packing heat he couldn’t have used it.

But lurking in the background is a deeper question that I don’t hear being discussed, and that is the value of already-born human life.  I say this because, as we all know, the stage upon which the current drama is playing out includes Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.  As represented in the media (and I have heard this characterization on both Fox and NPR), if a person “feels threatened” he or she has the right to use deadly force against a would-be attacker, and has no “duty to retreat.”

Importantly, Florida’s actual Stand Your Ground law is a bit more tightly worded than either conservative or liberal media suggest.  Most of it involves defense of a residence or vehicle, the so-called “Castle Doctrine,” which in essence allows a homeowner to shoot on sight anyone who breaks into his/her home, vehicle, tent, etc.  The part of Florida’s law that might apply to Zimmerman’s defense is XLVI 776.013(3), which reads:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

It is this “no duty to retreat” clause that causes me the greatest concern. The concept of a duty to retreat, historically, has meant that a claim of self-defense to justify homicide would only be sustained if the defendant not only feared for his life, by also had no reasonable means of escape.  In other words, if retreating could have de-escalated the situation without resulting in death or serious injury to either the defendant or a third party, then the defendant had a duty to extract himself from the scene rather than resorting to lethal force.

I’m not going to argue the history of the laws. My question is not a legal one, but rather moral: what is a human life worth? The Florida law explicitly states that anyone who has forcibly entered your home (i.e., broken in) can be presumed to have violent intent…therefore, in essence, the inviolability of your threshold is worth a life. Stand Your Ground says you need not leave the scene if threatened, even if the only wound you might sustain by retreating is to your ego. Bluntly, your pride is worth a life.

This is not unusual in our culture. Listen to conservative American commentary on our wars and foreign policy–heck, listen to our presidents–and it is clear in numerous circumstances that we as a people are perfectly willing to take human lives, at times in great numbers, for no greater cause than our pride in our greatness as a nation.  As goes the people as a whole, so go many as individuals.

Christians disagree about the appropriate boundaries for the legitimate use of deadly force. I myself am not an absolutist in this regard, though my criteria are stricter than most. But I see no rationale whereby the follower of Jesus can justify or defend the doctrine of Stand Your Ground, rooted as it is in the presumption that one man’s ego could ever justify taking another man’s life.

How does this apply to Zimmerman?  Well, he’s likely to be tried either against the state Stand Your Ground law, which even former governor Jeb Bush said is not applicable, or on federal civil rights charges.  Neither is likely to address what I think is the root cause of ego-vs-life, but nor will they address the other relevant question, which is training for those who are armed.  This is the practical side of the Martin/Zimmerman story, and it’s likewise getting no play.  We can argue all day about whether guns, or concealed carry, should be legal in this country.  Bottom line, those arguments will garner lots of donations to the NRA and to gun control groups, but they’ll accomplish little else.

I think we ought to try for a little common ground by requiring that those who have the permission to carry a weapon–particularly a concealed handgun–must undergo regular training.  I don’t mean how to shoot, though they certainly should be proficient with their weapon.  I mean when to shoot.  I rather suspect that in most situations where a weapon is involved, the escalation to the pulling of a trigger happens incredibly quickly.  I know many police departments require their officers to undergo shoot/no shoot simulation training on a regular basis.  So ought civilians.  Evaluating the danger of a confrontation is tricky business, and there are no simple answers.  But those who hold in their hands the power to take life, owe to the rest of us the discipline to have thought, and practiced, and thought some more about just when that power ought to be used.  I’m neither judge nor jury, but I’m guessing that neither George Zimmerman nor the vast majority of his supporters have exercised that discipline.

11 thoughts on “Trayvon Martin – Race, Guns, or Pride?”

  1. Marla Abe

    So what value a life? Is the theft of a big screen TV a death sentence? Is my being scared a death sentence?
    The brave American lives in constant fear and attacks first just in case. Yes, training on when to shoot or not shoot is invaluable! So is a review of every shoot situation, just as police officers have to do. If someone misuses a gun, it is taken from them. Jesus was into laying down our lives, not taking others lives to save ours.

  2. Vik Solem

    Respectfully, I have some comments. Apologies for the extreme length.

    > he was confronted because he was a black kid in a hoodie,
    > and his death was the result of an unfortunate escalation of the confrontation. 

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. Before the media circus and various changes of stories to fit the media narrative, two eye witnesses said that the guy with the hoodie was on top of the guy with the red sweater. If we take this into account we have a sequence of events that a rational human being can follow. I have made this up to fit the evidence. Please read this for the purpose of illustration and discourse. Like ALL OF THE OTHER PEOPLE talking on the TV and online, I was not there. I just try to piece things together using the available evidence.

    1. Z chases down M and loses him – walks back to his car.
    2. M confronts Z and says something like “what’s your problem?”
    3. Z says something like “What do you think you’re doing here?”
    4. M says to Z something like “You’re not a cop. F off.”
    5. Z implies that he will or perhaps actually tries to restrain M to hold him for the police.
    6. M punches Z, knocking him down. (Recall that while the media shows
    pictures of a 13 year old, we’re talking about a 6’3″ tall 17 year old.)
    7. Z then jumps on M with the intention of teaching him a lesson.
    8. Z cries for help. No help comes. Z pulls his gun and shoots.
    (Z has no idea when M will stop beating his head into the ground.)

    Mistake at (1) : Was Z justified in chasing M. No. M had a right to walk in the neighborhood. He was a visitor. M was not doing anything wrong. (NOTE A)

    Mistake at (2) : If M had continued to flee – then no confrontation. No problem. (NOTE A)

    Mistake at (3) : If Z had the attitude that M was a person to be greeted and welcomed into the neighborhood instead of chased then we would never have heard about it. Something like “HI! How are you doing? Can I help you find someone?”

    Mistake at (4) : If M had instead said something like “Hi there Mr. Neighborhood watch man. I like that you’re helping to keep things safe. I’m staying with my dad for a little while. …” then the situation would have de-escalated.

    Mistake at (5) : If Z had the attitude that he was going to wait for the police then no problem. Clearly he had some intention of confrontation because he left his car.

    Mistake at (6) : Escalation instead of de-escalation. Basic self-defense: if you can knock the person down you run and call for law enforcement.

    Mistake at (7) : Further escalation. Whether Z “deserved” it or not, beating him up is a bad move. Even if the intention was to simply “teach him a lesson”, Z had no way to know that. Furthermore, if Z has not been in many street fights then Z may think that his life is threatened, even if it was nothing more than a non-life-threatening fist-fight.

    At (8) if Z believes his life is threatened then there’s no mistake. If Z’s choices are CHOICE 1: I let myself get beaten to death and the people who love me never see me again and CHOICE 2: I stop my attacker, possibly killing him then the rational choice is choice 1. If I believe that my life is threatened, and I’m unable to retreat, because my assailant has me on my back on the ground, and I have cried for help with no response then my right to self defense gives me the right to escalate and defend myself. It is not fun that this fits the witness testimony and the evidence the police found. Unfortunately, it fits. It doesn’t fit the story that the media wants to tell, but that story came much later. I think we are closer to the truth if we look at what we knew BEFORE pressure was applied from famous people (Reverend Jackson, Mr. Sharpton) and from the media.

    NOTES:
    (A) Do we want to live in a world where we are required to flee people in fear when we have done nothing wrong. Do we need to run away from people we see on the street? What kind of world is that? M should not have felt compelled to flee. Neither should Z.

    > the proliferation of guns and gun rights are also to blame

    Respectfully, this is a lie which is perpetuated when people don’t challenge it. Does a woman deserve to be able to defend her life against an attacker? How should she plan to do so? A gun is a most effective method of doing so. Does any person, of any race have the right to self defense? Of course, yes. Gun rights enable people to defend themselves against attackers. Gun rights should be expanded, not curtailed.

    Interesting note, gun control began in this country as a way to protect the KKK. Why would we want to perpetuate laws that were invented to protect such hateful people?

    What about the young widow in Oklahoma who used a gun to protect herself and her baby from a large man with a 12 inch hunting knife, bent on violence. Did she and her baby deserve to die? She was on the phone with 911 as the attacker broke into her home. 911’s advice was to protect herself. If she had not had a gun then what would have been the result? Did she deserve to die because some people think (mistakenly) that guns are bad?

    What about Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and Luby’s Cafeteria? All were gun-free zones. Do we want more gun free zones where attackers can kill people, knowing that there is no responsible armed citizen who can stop them? Are we sheep to be slaughtered by any criminal with a knife, gun, or other weapon? Is that a civilized society? My life is forfeit at any moment because a criminal decides I deserve to die? That’s not civilized.

    My life is worth defending. I have people who depend on me, and my life is worth defending for their sake. I have people who love me, and my life is worth defending for their sake. My life is worth defending, and so is everyone else’s. Self defense is a fundamental human right.

    > if George Zimmerman wasn’t packing heat he couldn’t have used it.

    According to witnesses this would have left Zimmerman defenseless while Martin beat him into the ground. Is that ethical? Did Zimmerman deserve to die any more than Martin?

    > the value of already-born human life. … Bluntly, your pride is worth a life.

    I disagree, very strongly. First, if Zimmerman was on the ground then he had no ability to retreat, therefore the law does not apply, but let’s disconnect it from the question of eye witness testimony vs. media statements. What you’re saying here is that if someone walks up to me on the street and says “get out of here or else” I should do what they say. If someone says “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t walk away” then I would have a legal duty to walk away. Preventing that kind of situation is not protecting pride. It’s protecting freedom. Martin had a right to be walking around there. Zimmerman did too.

    Let’s say that we enact laws that require you to retreat if at all possible. Then we have a world where any bully can stand on the sidewalk and order people away, and no-one would be legally permitted to stand up to them. “Your Honor, when my client said GO AWAY they did not go away. They could have retreated, but they did not. My client had every right to …”. That reminds me of a quote. “In a world without guns the strong prey on the weak and women belong to men for protection.” With no right to stand your ground, bullies can make people “retreat” whenever they like. So, a criminal breaks into my house, threatens me and my kids, but if I have a back door then I would have a legal obligation to retreat and run away? And when they break in again the next week? and again the week after that? and again the week after that? It’s not about pride, it’s about Liberty, and a right to be left alone or to walk down the street without being harassed. If anything, in this case it sounds like Martin was being harassed, and Zimmerman was the aggressor, right until Zimmerman was on the ground.

    > we as a people are perfectly willing to take human lives, at times in great numbers,
    > for no greater cause than our pride in our greatness as a nation. 

    I think this is a separate issue, and I think this is primarily related to the way we, as a nation, continue to make decisions under the pressures of the moment. (e.g. Going to war with Iraq because of the actions of terrorists in Afghanistan.)

    > But I see no rationale whereby the follower of Jesus can justify or defend
    > the doctrine of Stand Your Ground, rooted as it is in the presumption that
    > one man’s ego could ever justify taking another man’s life.

    I think I’ve stated my opinion above, and I am a Christian. Would Christ be in favor of allowing a bully to push around innocent people? I think that many take only what they want from Christianity and use that to prove their point. Should a father allow himself to be killed, because he can’t defend himself? What about that father’s family? Should a mother allow herself to be killed? Would Christ be in favor of slaughtering innocents, because they refuse to defend themselves? I think not. I think that as a Christian I am called to live a good life and to love all people. I think that I am called to forgive people who do me harm. I think that I am also called to defend my life and the lives of my family. I do not believe that I am called to die in front of my family because I refuse to defend myself. That does not help make the world a better place. Being a good person, showing people how to be a good person, and fighting against the forces of evil in the world, those are all Christian, in my opinion.

    > even former governor Jeb Bush said is not applicable,

    Whether it’s applicable depends on whether the eye witnesses are telling the truth about him being on his back.

    > training for those who are armed. 

    This is an EXCELLENT point. People should be trained in all aspects of their lives that can affect the safety of others. People should be trained how to evacuate properly in case of an emergency. (Movies and TV shows routinely show people in a panic for a fire alarm.) People should be trained how to handle a gun safely. (Movies and TV shows routinely show people doing very,very unsafe things with guns.) In both cases we allow the media to show us bad habits, and we do nothing about it. If a fire alarm rings, gather your necessities and leave, quietly. If a person steals your wallet and runs away, you canNOT threaten their life. EVEN IF you’re a police officer.

    This point cannot be over-emphasized. I want everyone with the ability to hurt me to understand the consequences of their actions. This includes other training as well.

    > But those who hold in their hands the power to take life, owe to the rest of us
    > the discipline to have thought, and practiced, and thought some more about
    > just when that power ought to be used. 

    I agree, but I think this training should go far beyond the simple topic of firearms. This should go to parenting, driving, and any other activity where one’s actions have a direct impact on the lives of another. Far too many people think it’s OK to leave a tiny baby in a car while they go off to gamble. Far too many people think it’s OK to drive a ton of steel down the road while they are too drunk to avoid hitting innocent people. We are somehow conditioned to think that these things are “rights”, and therefore we are allowed to do them without any training. “Nobody trained you in ancient times, why do I need training on how to be a parent.” Well, in ancient times you were trained, because you were not placed in front of a television for child-care. You were with a parent or a care-giver. The training might not have been formal, but I argue that it was there. All adults should be trained in these kinds of things. When can I confront someone on my street? How can I do it? etc. Such training will only make us all safer.

    This training should be given at different ages so that each person has knowledge appropriate to their age and appropriate to their abilities (licenses, hobbies, etc.) People with guns should know when the can and cannot use them. People with cars should understand the consequences of speeding down a side-street. People with children should understand the ramifications of feeding their kids junk food for every meal. I don’t think that all of these things should be regulated, but I do think that they should be taught.

    > I’m neither judge nor jury, but I’m guessing that neither George Zimmerman
    > nor the vast majority of his supporters have exercised that discipline.

    I’d like to be clear that I am NOT a “supporter” of Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a man who pursued someone without cause, confronted him, without cause, and then got into a fight he couldn’t win without escalation to deadly force. However, according to pre-media-circus-evidence, Martin was beating Zimmerman, with no clear end in sight. Both men could have prevented this. If either man had followed basic self-defense and de-escalated or stepped back and asked a question or two then nothing would have happened. That’s the world I want.

    Z: “Hey there, forgive me, but I don’t recognize you. Can I help you find someone’s house?”

    M: “Hi. You might not know me, because I’m just visiting. How are you doing tonight?”

    That’s the world I’d like for my kids. Simple, mutual respect.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Vic, I approved your comment because I will allow for the moment that you may be interested in real dialog, but I ask you not to hijack this thread and turn it into a predictable pro-gun screed. If you look carefully at my words, I was not advocating for gun control and your cookie-cutter NRA objections don’t actually apply. I freely acknowledged that I am a (mostly) pacifist, but I have not tried to force that position on this situation. I would ask you not to force a pro-gun position either.

      There may indeed be a legitimate objection to a universal application of the duty to flee. But to go to the other extreme as most stand-your-ground laws have, and say there is no such duty, enables a lot more than just kowtowing to a bully. Even so, as nasty as bullying is (and I have been bullied), I remain troubled by the notion that the response to bullying should be deadly force…that is not proportionate, and more importantly to me, it is not Christ-like. Look at the history of the application of stand-your-ground, and the arguments made for it, and honestly, pride is an indisputable part of far too many of those scenarios. I allow for deadly force to be used as a last resort in the preservation of life. I repudiate it in the context of significantly lesser threats.

      Finally, I would submit that the facts you purport to report regarding Martin attacking Zimmerman are still very much in dispute. You point out the allegation that Martin was 6’3″. I’ve not seen that reported in any reliable, dispassionate location yet, but only in sites that also post photos that have now been discredited as being another person entirely. I would love to see a report that actually tells the height and weight of both parties. I haven’t seen it. But the photos lead me to believe that Zimmerman could have taken Martin without a gun, and the medical evidence of injury is somewhat shaky at this juncture. That’ll be for the jury to sort out. Just as I dare not convict Zimmerman, you dare not acquit him, on the basis of what we know today.

      But my article was attacking, not Zimmerman, but a law, and the assumptions behind that law, that excessively cheapen human life. I stand by that assessment.

  3. Vik Solem

    > I will allow for the moment that you may be interested in real dialog,

    I believe that I am interested in real dialog. I thirst for it. Thank you for approving my first post.

    Unlike many who want simply to shout their opinion, I am interested in what other people think. I believe myself to be swayed by rational thought.

    > but I ask you not to hijack this thread and turn it into a predictable pro-gun screed.

    I grew up being taught only one side of the story. Today I believe I have an opinion based on careful consideration of facts. My opinion is not cookie-cutter from anyone. I disagree with most parties (NRA, ACLU, etc.) on various points. This is your forum, so I will say no more on that subject in this thread.

    > I remain troubled by the notion that the response to bullying should be deadly
    > force…that is not proportionate, and more importantly to me, it is not Christ-like.

    I agree with you. The immediate response should not be deadly force. Likewise, I think that the immediate response should not be to kowtow (thank you, that was the word I was looking for) to any bully on the street. If I could enact legislation that would truly make people act rationally then I’d be in favor of that. I don’t think that such legislation is possible. As a result, I think that we need something closer to the middle than what is proposed by either extreme. I think we need something that leaves room for rational people to decide when things are calm. I think that the biggest problem with Florida’s law is that it places too much control in the hands of the responding officers. One decision made by one officer at the scene (in the rain/snow/sleet, while tired/angry/hurried) carries weight for all future interactions. I think this is not proper, and I think it’s not fair for Law Enforcement. It puts them in a bad position. Their job should be enforcing laws and keeping the public safe. They should not be called on to make decisions that have legal ramifications. I also think that they should be trained and equipped to handle potentially explosive situations like this. (e.g. trained to get all decision-quality information on a video tape, along with their narration of what they saw, heard, felt, smelled, and inferred. This should be taken as a matter of procedure at the scene.)

    > Look at the history of the application of stand-your-ground, and the arguments
    > made for it, and honestly, pride is an indisputable part of far too many of those scenarios.

    I have to admit that I have not researched this point. I can’t argue for or against you here; however, thinking rationally I can see that this would be so. Pride frequently causes people to make very serious mistakes.

    > I allow for deadly force to be used as a last resort in the preservation of life.
    > I repudiate it in the context of significantly lesser threats.

    I agree completely here. This is a basic rule of self defense. Always de-escalate.

    > You point out the allegation that Martin was 6’3″.

    I apologize. I appear to have been incorrect in that statement. According to a page on cbsnews titled “Trayvon Martin Shooting: What Do We Know?” It sounds like he was between 6’0″ and 6’2″, weighing 140 to 160 pounds. Sounds like a young kid, a bit on the thin side. Not a heavy-weight boxer size, by any measure. I’m not sure how I feel about this. In my martial art classes, I have always reminded people that the size and weight of their attacker does not matter. What matters is the attacker’s skill and whether they have other advantages. (surprise, a weapon, etc.)

    > I would love to see a report that actually tells the height and weight of both parties.

    I think that the aforementioned cbsnew article tries to do this. I haven’t checked the terms of use for both sites, otherwise I would post a link to it.

    > But the photos lead me to believe that Zimmerman could have taken Martin without a gun,

    In my experience it is not possible to determine a person’s fighting capabilities from photographs or video, unless the photos or video show the person actually demonstrating their fighting capabilities in a real fight. Without knowing more about any training (formal or otherwise) that either man had, I don’t think we can have any idea who would be the victor in a physical confrontation. Even then, the element of surprise can be devastating.

    > and the medical evidence of injury is somewhat shaky at this juncture.

    I submit that the medical evidence was destroyed at the scene. Without close-up, at-the-moment-after-the-fight, before-any-cleanup video of Zimmerman’s injuries we have no evidence. I’ve been punched in the nose, felt stunned, had it bleed, held a tissue to it, and had it look normal a short time later. It irritates me when people say that they want to see blood on his face in a video taken 20 minutes or more after the fact. That’s insulting. Basic human compassion calls us to help someone wipe the blood off his face if they have a bloody nose. To say that lacking blood on his face at the police station is evidence of a lack of a fight is insulting, and just plain mean. Do we want a victim of an assault to be kept untouched by anyone until they arrive at the police station? I think that better video documentation of the scene itself would help here, but to rant and rave (as I saw on television) about how “There’s no blood.” in a video taken at the police station is a perfect example of people with control of media, speaking to thousands of people telling a story with no rational thought behind it.

    > That’ll be for the jury to sort out.

    I agree. Furthermore, the decision-making required by the police at the scene (as a result of the stand-your-ground law) takes away the ability of a jury to review things, and I think that’s my issue with the legal system.

    > Just as I dare not convict Zimmerman, you dare not acquit him, on the basis of what we know today.

    Agreed.

    > But my article was attacking, not Zimmerman, but a law, and the assumptions behind that law,
    > that excessively cheapen human life. I stand by that assessment.

    Apologies if I argued against the wrong point. I, too, believe that the law is flawed, but I argue that this is so with a different point. I think that the law requires Law Enforcement officers to make decisions at the scene, but I think that those decisions should instead be made by a grand jury or possibly by a trial jury. I read your article, because my sister and I have been arguing about this for a time, and she said that you made some interesting points. I think she’s absolutely correct. You do make some very interesting and well-thought out points. I agree that the law is not a good thing.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Vik, I appreciate the content and tone of your reply. Frankly, I’d love to chat over a mutually-agreed beverage, as I think we’d find a good deal of common ground while agreeing to disagree on other points. I hope you have detected in my comments that I, too, disagree with both pro- and anti-gun forces at quite a number of points, which is why I tried to keep this commentary away from that usually-unproductive topic.

      I specifically agree with you that the status quo leaves too much to the law enforcement officer at the scene, and that in this particular case that oversight may have resulted in less hard evidence being available for the eventual trial. And while we might not completely agree on the appropriate context for the application of force, we absolutely agree that there is nuance to be applied and that no one-size-fits-all formula can be imposed.

      Thanks too for pointing out the CBS article. I just read their terms of service and it appears that linking to their story is permitted unless for any reason they determine that the link is inappropriate and ask it to be taken down. On that basis, I provide the link to what I believe was the story you referenced. I think we can agree that there remain plenty of gaps to be filled in, hopefully with good evidence. I hope we can also agree that the information provided in that story, if proven to be true, at least establishes that there’s been plenty of hyperbole on both sides of the Martin/Zimmerman case.

      Thank you for the civil dialog. You’re always welcome here.

  4. Michael

    Excellent blog. I am reminded of “Cain and Abel.” Many have attempted to discern the “whys” of Cain killing his brother. I would have to say that you have made the best argument, “pride” under the guise of “stand your ground” in a garden a long long time ago. Cain was simply, should I say, embarrassed. He would do the manly thing and stand his ground. Of course that has unleashed the world we currently live in, a no retreat world. Thanks for your article.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      So do I, Jim! The art of civil disagreement is one we need to cultivate…and it’s so much more interesting than an echo chamber for any single viewpoint.

  5. Sharon

    Appreciate reading everyone’s comments. There are still so many pieces of the story missing. I have 2 simple question that perhaps George Zimmerman will answer. Why did he continue to follow Trayvon when the 911 operator told him they didn’t need him to do that? Why did he get out of his vehicle? Seems to me if he had just listened, Trayvon would be alive today and George Zimmerman would not be charged with 2nd degree murder.
    Just sayin’

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      And it’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll ever know, Sharon…even when the trial comes I have my doubts whether the truth will be discernable among the competing narratives, each of which will (I fear) be largely constructed either to vilify or exonerate the defendant.

      This is part of why I chose to focus on the broader issue of the law, and what it says about our value of human life generally.

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