Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

Scapegoating in the Aftermath of the Sandy Hook Shooting: Yes, It’s Really Happening to Us

12224_389210427833158_1154294158_nDespite a number of clarifications in The New York Times and on ABC News, NBC News, and CNN that Asperger’s is not a predisposing factor for premeditated violence, the spurious association of Asperger’s with the violence in Newtown, CT is still strong. In part, the media is responsible for not having clarified early on that yes, Adam Lanza shot 27 people and yes, Adam Lanza was apparently autistic, and no, one had nothing to do with the other. Such failures were rife. For example, in exploring a possible explanation for the shooting, Dr. Xavier Amador opined on Piers Morgan Tonight that people with Asperger’s are missing an essential element of humanity:

Well, actually, a symptom of Asperger’s, and this is one report coming out which may or may not be true, is something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety.

But the media’s response is only a symptom of a much larger problem. Its willingness to blame Asperger’s is a reflection of a cultural association between disability and evil that has lasted for centuries. As Colin Barnes writes:

Throughout the Middle Ages, disabled people were the subject of superstition, persecution, and rejection. Haffter (1968) has pointed out that in medieval Europe disability was associated with evil and witchcraft. Deformed and disabled children were seen as ‘changelings’ or the Devil’s substitutes for human children, the outcome of their parents’ involvement with the black arts of sorcery. The Malleus Maleficarum of 1487 declared that these children were the product of the mothers’ intercourse with Satan… Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) proclaimed that he saw the Devil in a profoundly disabled child. If these children lived, Luther recommended killing them.” (Barnes 2010, 21)

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century eugenicists picked up this connection between disability and depravity, believing “that there were genetic links between physical and mental impairments, crime, unemployment and other social evils” (Barnes 2010, 26). The linkage has come down to the present day in the pernicious belief that disability is synonymous with narcissism and anti-social behavior (Siebers 2011, 34-35).

I’ve read a number of comments online that suggest that autistic people and autism parents are overplaying the scapegoating of Asperger’s. People say that the mainstream media has issued its clarifications and that the problem is solved. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Once this iteration of the cultural narrative about disability hit the airwaves, it quickly took root among ordinary people. Giving life to a well-worn untruth while people are in a state of nearly irrational fear is a difficult thing to undo. To give you a sense of just how deep the damage goes, I offer the following examples.

On the Volconvo forum, one commenter refers to people with autism and mental illness as “broken-minded defects” who are “dangerous” and whom society needs to monitor and imprison inside locked wards:

comment from website

A commenter on a TIME article suggests that autistic people are “mutants” who need to be placed in “psychiatric facilities” and ultimately removed from the gene pool for the good of society:

comment on Time article

And then there was the person who started a Facebook page and called for the killing of autistic children. (To its credit, Facebook quickly removed the page.)

comment from facebook

This kind of scapegoating has begun the inevitable creep off the major news sites and social media and into the lives of ordinary autistic people and their families. Three friends have given me permission to share their experiences.

Here is the story told by my friend Sara, a woman with Asperger’s. While standing at the post office five days after the tragedy, she spoke to a woman, an Ivy League graduate, who said that Asperger’s — and Asperger’s alone — had caused the Sandy Hook shooting. Sara posted the following on her Facebook status:

sara 1

Another friend describes a situation in which a false belief in a link between autism and violence caused his wholly nonviolent autistic child to become suspect in the eyes of a relative:

question

Finally, my friend C describes a more frightening scenario. Her son J, who is 14 years old, had gone to Wal-Mart to look for a Christmas tree. He has Asperger’s and bipolar disorder, and people in his community are aware of his diagnoses. He was wearing headphones to block out sensory input, and, at one point, attempted to find a quieter place in the store. He had his hand on a price list in his pocket when someone who knew him went into a panic — a panic that resulted in the young man’s injury:

image

Like Trayvon Martin in his hoodie, the scary guy on the block appears to be, in the minds of some people, the kid with Asperger’s with his hands in his pockets. I’m just waiting for someone to suggest that, as Geraldo Rivera said about black men giving up their hoodies, young men with Asperger’s should wear pocketless clothing.

The stunning level of irrationality and fear being leveled at people with autism is tremendous cause for concern. In the face of this scapegoating,  autistic people and autism parents are countering with positive images of autistic children and adults that show us as full human beings — ordinary, extraordinary, beautiful, and proud. To see these images, please go to the following Facebook pages:

Autism Shines
Autistics, Not Monsters
Disability and Representation

Let’s spread the word to end the scapegoating. And let’s keep doing it, now and always, wherever and whenever we can.

References

Barnes, Colin. “A Brief History of Discrimination and Disabled People.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 20-32. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Christopher, Tommy. “Piers Morgan Quack Says People With Autism Lack Empathy: ‘Something’s Missing In The Brain’.” Mediaite, December 14, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.mediaite.com/tv/piers-morgan-quack-says-people-with-autism-lack-empathy-somethings-missing-in-the-brain/.

Facebook. www.facebook.com. Accessed December 24, 2012.

— “Autism Shines.” http://www.facebook.com/AutismShines?fref=ts. Accessed December 24, 2012.

— “Autistics, Not Monsters.” http://www.facebook.com/AutisticsNotMonsters?ref=ts&fref=ts. Accessed December 24, 2012.

— “Disability and Representation.” http://www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation. Accessed December 24, 2012.

Falco, Miriam. “Groups: Autism not to blame for violence. CNN, December 19, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/17/health/connecticut-shooting-autism/index.html.

Fox, Maggie. “Asperger’s not an explanation for Lanza’s Connecticut killing spree, experts say.” NBC News, December 18, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/18/15994353-aspergers-not-an-explanation-for-lanzas-connecticut-killing-spree-experts-say?lite.

Gilman, Priscilla. “Don’t Blame Autism for Newtown.” The New York Times, December 17, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/opinion/dont-blame-autism-for-newtown.html.

Nano, Stephanie. “Experts: No Link Between Asperger’s, Violence. ABC News, December 16, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/experts-link-aspergers-violence-17987339#.UNj7VHfLBQG.

Rochman, Bonnie. “Guilt by Association: Troubling Legacy of Sandy Hook May Be Backlash Against Children with Autism.” TIME, December 19, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/19/guilt-by-associationtroubling-legacy-of-sandy-hook-may-be-backlash-against-children-with-autism/.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Volconvo. “Kindergarten isn’t just about identifying colors, shapes and sizes anymore.” http://www.volconvo.com/forums/society-rights/43038-kindergarten-isn-t-just-about-identifying.html. December 14, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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    15 comments already | Leave your own comment

  1. 12/26/2012 | 9:15 am Permalink

    Argh, that Time comment pisses me off, and it touches on an issue that bugs me to no end. Ze sees the problem of autistics being picked on in school–solution? Punish the victim and pull hir out of school.

    Why is it more acceptable to tell autistics that we have to do all the work of fitting in with the rest of society than it is to tell everyone else to be nicer to the occasional autistic? (Actually, I think I know the answer to that–privilege) I’m tired of being told that I’m not good enough, that I’m ‘weird’, that ‘that’s why no one likes you’ and having no guidance other than vague finger-pointing. And if someone thinks that bullying causes people like Adam Lanza…well, we’re not the ones doing the bullying.

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    • 12/26/2012 | 11:20 am Permalink

      I agree totally with Jayn on the topic of bullying. When the Time magazine letter writer speaks of “the inevitable bullying of Autistic kids,” it sounds as if the blame for bullying is being placed on the victim rather than where it belongs — on the perpetrator. I would like to see the issue of bullying dealt with the same way the women’s movement has dealt with domestic violence: take a zero tolerance approach to any kind of physical, verbal or psychological abuse or violence and hold the perpetrator accountable rather than asking what the victim did to provoke the violence or abuse. I’ve often thought that neurotypical kids could use some social skills training of their own, and bullying is one classic example of this. Learning how to be comfortable with differences between people is one of the premiere social skills we need to learn in the 21st century.

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  2. 12/26/2012 | 10:55 am Permalink

    A truly chilling catalog of hateful comments. Additionally there is the NRA statement equating the “mentally ill” with “deranged, evil, monsters” and advocating a national database that would ONLY be used to discriminate against us – housing, schools, jobs, benefits, driving.

    Could the USA really go down this road? It wouldn’t be the first time. During WWII we put Japanese Americans into camps (prisons?), we’ve also tried eugenics and forced sterilizations. In past years people with disabilities were put in institutions. While some group homes or institutions are fine, others are full of abuse, negligence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and other conditions I would not wish on anyone – especially someone that I love.

    The truly scary thing about these quotes is the dehumanization of people with mental illnesses.

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  3. 12/26/2012 | 11:24 am Permalink

    I am posting my link to the interview I did on NBC12 in Richmond VA. I would write more but I am also having kidney stones right now. In my interview I talk about a couple of the incidents. http://www.nbc12.com/story/20386590/woman-with-aspergers-defends-the-condition

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  4. 12/26/2012 | 11:53 am Permalink

    I screencapped a few horrible comments too, was going to use them in a blog post that never materialized because I just ran out of spoons for putting coherent thoughts together about the whole thing. Absolutely chilling and sickening and horrible and….I can’t even. Just. Can’t.

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  5. 12/26/2012 | 5:47 pm Permalink

    I’m with you Cara, so dis-heartened and sad and angry, I can’t get the thoughts flying through my head to settle down so I can organize them. My cognitive dysfunction amplifies when I’m feeling too hard. This is so very hard. I want to delete my incoherent and non-participatory post, but that will just make me angrier too. another hurdle. well … try again tomorrow.

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  6. 12/26/2012 | 9:49 pm Permalink

    Two thoughts:

    1. In the Jewish world, one of the greatest “sins” is called “lashon ha-ra” — literally, “evil tongue.” Saying harsh, untrue things about others. It is equated with murder because the blood drains out of a person’s face when they have been publicly insulted or shamed. Everything negative that is being said about people with autism and Asperger’s is nothing less than lashon ha-ra, and should be seen as such. It murders a person’s good name.

    2. Most cultures, ours included, have the tendency to “otherwise” those who are “not like us” so that we won’t have to look into the mirror and see ourselves reflected there; so we won’t have to take responsibility, as a society, for the evils that we either do or allow to be done. Wayne LaPierre’s very public meltdown the other day is a perfect example of this: Throw enough buckshot out there, and it’s bound to hit something — but it certainly won’t hit any of “us.”

    And a third thought: “First they came for the Jews, but I wasn’t a Jew, so I said nothing….”

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  7. 12/26/2012 | 10:08 pm Permalink

    The scapegoating reached my country too, someone said on a tv show that the tragedy was caused because of Asperger, I think it was a psychologist, few people even know about Asperger or Autism here and we still have the same problem from what we learn about violence and autism from the United States news.
    Luckily we have less “awareness” so people can’t see if someone is an autistic person if they don’t pass well, actually this is not luck but it makes some people safer.
    Many people protested the misinformation on our media but the damage was already done, if there is an apology at the same show it would be nice but the first thing people hear is the one they memorize more, it caused damage to the autistic people, especially children, that were watching the show too.

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  8. 12/26/2012 | 11:01 pm Permalink

    The following was part of a comment left on Emily Willingham’s “Motherlode” column in the New York Times, titled “Our Sons Are Not Future Killers.”

    “I never turn my back on these kids.
    They have no empathy. They are time bombs”

    I flagged it as inflammatory, but it remains, without comment or any apparent condemnation from an editor. Can you imagine this comment being made against any other ethnic or disability group, flagged, and adjudicated to be acceptable to the Times’ comment policy? No, but bigotry against us like this is totally acceptable.

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  9. 12/27/2012 | 8:41 am Permalink

    Tell me, did the autism theory that surfaced during he trial of Anders Behring Breivik receive any coverage internationally? (Hopefully not…)

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    • 12/27/2012 | 9:57 am Permalink

      Not really. A psychiatrist looked at him from across the courtroom for a few days and said he might have an unusual form of Asperger’s. A very scientific analysis. The psychiatrists who actually examined him — as psychiatrists are wont to do from time to time — said that he didn’t have Asperger’s at all.

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      • 12/27/2012 | 9:35 pm Permalink

        Actually, ‘a few days’ is being charitable. I quote verbatim from Dr. Malt’s testimony:

        “The first time I saw Breivik enter the courtroom, I watched him extremely closely – and for a psychiatrist, the first few milliseconds are very important.”

        This was towards the end of his hour-long lecture about how all autists lead wretched, unendurable lives as a result of their supposed complete inability to empathize with other people or to form genuine friendships. :-(

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  10. 12/27/2012 | 9:13 am Permalink

    Is there any way that donations can be sent to the family of the child who was attacked in the store? I’m sure that htere will be medical and therapy bilss as a result of this. Was the person responsible for this charged? I am sure that this could be considered a hate crime of some sort.

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  11. 12/30/2012 | 7:00 pm Permalink

    NOT ONE OF US?

    It happens every time a horrific crime is in the news. Most every commentator will rush without evidence, to characterize the perpetrator as “The madman,” or “the deranged individual,” or announce that “a person suffering from mental illness” walked into the school. . the mall. . . the movie theatre. . .”Each time I hear that I cringe, not because of any sympathy for the guilty party or because it is a slur against the mentally disabled, because of the smugness of the speaker. To call someone “deranged” or “mad” is to marginalize them, to declare that they “are not one of us,” and, indeed, not really human at all. As an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome who has been marginalized all her life, I feel very uncomfortable when anyone, even someone quite unsavory, is summarily written out of the human race. I wonder if these sanctimonious pundits realize that most instances of mass carnage (a.k.a. “wars”) have been planned and executed by neurotypicals just like themselves who were perfectly sane, unless you consider “drunk with power” a cognizable mental disorder.

    Now, with the news that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Connecticut elementary school massacre, may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, it is the turn of the autism community to recoil in horror and declare that no, he could not have possibly been one of us. The reports must have been in error, say many autism societies; he had never been formally diagnosed; perhaps he had “something else” instead, as though it would protect us to shovel him off onto another persecuted minority, as though there were a “something else” which would compel a person, not only to pump four bullets into the head of his mother as she lay in bed, but to then pack up the car with military gear, drive to the local elementary school and methodically gun down twenty first-graders and a handful of adults who got in his way.. Perhaps he had a demon, riding alongside him, loading ammo into those high-capacity magazines.

    It is true, of course, that individuals on the spectrum are more likely to be victims that villains, and that they almost never commit preplanned premeditated violence against strangers. That is why so few autistics go for soldiers. However, that does not mean that aspies, like all human beings, are incapable of becoming evildoers on occasion.

    All I know, all anyone knows at this point, is what has been reported in the media. It does appear, however, that Lanza’s behavior, up to the date of the shooting, was very aspie-like. He puts me in mind of many of the young male aspies I have encountered, and, indeed, a bit of myself at that age. So we will assume, if only for the sale of argument, that Lanza likely did fall somewhere on the autism spectrum and we may further assume that like many adolescent and adult aspies- myself included- he may have suffered from co-morbid disorders such as depression and anxiety. None of these conditions caused him to commit such a despicable and irrational crime, but to say that his autism had nothing to do with it, as some groups have immediately declared, may be too much of a stretch. Rather than rushing to publish disclaimers, is it not possible that we might learn something about ourselves through this one horrific exception to the general rule that autistics only harm themselves and those that are close to them?

    I actually knew someone who killed his mother. For many years, I lived next to a peaceable, personable and very nice family. Jason was not on the spectrum and, as far as I know, he had no mental disorders. He was just an ordinary kid. Yes, as a teenager he was a bit wild, but, by the time he reached his early twenties, the young man appeared to have turned his life around. He took responsibility for his life; he dressed well and was gainfully employed. Truth be told, I admired him immensely, for at that age I had been stranded in a limbo of dysfunctionality. Like many aspies, I experienced a world of difficulty making the transition to adulthood, and foundered about for many years before I gained a foothold in the “grown-up” world.

    The young man disappeared from the neighborhood, and I supposed he had gotten his own place, moved out of the area, perhaps even married. His mother told me no, that her son was jailed on a drug charge and asked me to say a prayer for his release. Eventually Jason was freed, and one night, apparently in an alcohol-fueled rage, he bludgeoned his mother and stepfather to death. He’s back in prison now, locked away for life, and trapped for eternity, or what will seem like eternity, in his own private hell of remorse and regret, more intractable than the steel walls of his cell.

    When I heard what Jason had done, I not only mourned for the victims, I shuddered, crossed myself and murmured, there but for the Grace of God . . . This was the kind of tragedy I could relate to. Had I not myself, in times of stress, flown into blind rages, and lashed out at loved ones or anyone who might be nearby? Had I not lost control of my behavior and caused damage and harm? I had never flipped out to such an extent, of course, but the realization of what rage might do caused me to reexamine my own tendencies and thenceforth I held the reins a little tighter whenever my emotions threatened to run away with me.

    Nonetheless, Adam Lanza’s criminal rampage was not a crime of passion; he did not just “snap” one night and strike out blindly like my young neighbor. No, it took planning and it took deliberation and it took a degree of cold-bloodedness to assemble that combat gear, a bullet-proof vest, and numerous clips of ammunition, to pack that arsenal into the family car and drive to town, not aimlessly, but directly to the local elementary school. That was the very unaspie-like thing he did. We on the autism spectrum are so inner-directed, as the very word “autism” implies, that we cannot understand why anyone should be hell bent on mowing down strangers, be they children or be they grown-ups. That is what makes Lanza’s actions so inexplicable.

    About a week after the incident, I met with my therapist. She suggested that perhaps Adam Lanza was envious of the children. Perhaps he felt that he had been deprived of his own childhood and the very existence of these first-graders wrenched his heart with excruciating pain. A light went on in my head when she said these words.

    It was a coincidence, but while sitting in the waiting room, I had been scanning a New Yorker article on Michael Jackson. Jackson certainly had some quirky, eccentric ways, and he was unquestionably obsessed with children and his own lost childhood. Although never the perpetrator of violence, the singer did express his obsession in ways that many people considered inappropriate and wrong.

    I recollected my own past. It was not my childhood that I had been robbed of, but adolescence. The summer I turned thirteen, my parents sold our house in my hometown and moved to a rustic area in upstate New York. Life as I knew it was ended. Left behind were my childhood friends, my school, three grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles. Once a spunky street urchin, I suddenly found myself abandoned on the frozen tundra with no one to talk to and nowhere to go, unbearably homesick and alone. High school was a nightmare from start to finish. I was bussed to a large impersonal campus full of bullies and strangers. My grades which had once been exceptional now plummeted. I made no new friends to replace those I had lost, nor did I have an adult mentor. There were a few good teachers there who might have taken me under their wings, but they were overwhelmed and far too busy. My parents were convinced that I was only making believe, pretending to fall apart in order to punish them for tearing me away from my hometown. Dragging myself out of bed in the morning was agony; sleep, my only solace. All the while I was well aware that, all around me, my classmates were having fun, dating, going to parties, dances and football games It’s not that I did not want to join them; My nose was pressed tightly to the windowpane, but where was the key?.

    Long after those days were passed, when I was an adult in my twenties and thirties, and, yes, in my forties, my heart would sink whenever I happened upon a group of teenagers chatting, flirting, and enjoying themselves. An unreasoning envy would seize me, and I would curse them under my breath and wish them misfortune. I knew that my reaction was irrational, that these young people had done me no harm, that they were not the bullies who had tormented me and locked me out of their world. Logic could not dispel the anger and pain that seethed within.

    Now, I might have wished them misfortune, but would I have ever taken steps to inflict it? No, of course not. Rather, I did what aspies commonly do. I turned and sunk my claws into my own heart, scorpion-like. I gave myself up to the slow suicide of desolation and despair.

    If Adam Lanza had only destroyed himself, no one would have noticed. He would have silently departed this world, leaving “no footprints,” as one commentator put it. If he had only killed his mother, well-meaning people would have shaken their heads and said exactly what they said about my neighbor, that here was another troubled young man who “snapped.” It is because he exploded in such an unusual and almost apocalyptic way, that we are so shaken. If there is a silver lining to this horrific event, it might be that now the autism community will take an honest look at the dark side of living on the spectrum.

    Advocates prefer not to address the negative aspects of autism. The reason for this is easy to understand. First of all, scare no one. Better to portray us as shy, gentle, quirky geniuses. This is a safe depiction, but is it complete? Yes, we want acceptance, but must we sacrifice some inconvenient facts? Pretend all spectrummites are saints and the one who is not a saint is doubly alienated.

    “Aspies are prey animals” say Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin. That we know is true. However, wounded prey may become desperate and strike back. A lifetime of being bullied, rejected and relegated to the periphery of life can give rise to anger and bitter fantasies of revenge, especially among lonely young autistics that have grown up in a culture where violence is glamorized and who may turn to perfecting their skills at violent video games in lieu of a social life.

    This is not to excuse Adam Lanza or anyone else, on or off the spectrum, who commits a terrible crime. In the end, I believe in free will. Unless a person is truly insane and has no control whatsoever over his or her actions, one must ultimately be held accountable. An ordered society could not exist unless there were laws against wrongdoing, and most aspies respect the law. It has been written that courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to overcome it. Perhaps choosing to be a good person entails not the absence of anger, but the presence of mind to channel that anger in a constructive way. Rather than sweep it under the rug, would it not be wonderful if aspies who have succeeded could lend a helping hand to those who are still challenged by pain, anger and despair to overcome the darker emotions and temptations of the autistic life?

    Charli Devnet

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    • 12/31/2012 | 6:34 am Permalink

      Charli, there is a distinction between saying that the bullying and exclusion Adam Lanza likely experienced was a contributing factor in what he did, and saying that his autism was. I don’t think anyone is arguing that autistic people simply can’t do these things; Adam Lanza, if he was in fact autistic, puts the lie to that idea. We’re arguing that, if he was autistic, his autism didn’t make him do it. Perhaps the rage he felt at likely exclusion and bullying contributed, but that’s not rooted in autism; that’s rooted in other people’s responses to autism. And even bullying and exclusion can’t explain it; most people who suffer those things don’t strike out violently at all; it’s a long, long road from feeling anger to hurting someone. Many people, in many minorities, feel pain and rage, but most of them don’t pick up a gun, and if they do, it’s not their race or sexual orientation or gender identity that makes them do it.

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