Any Koranic verses in particular?

Koran Open2I am sorry to keep returning to this subject so often, but the reporting coming out of the Zacarias Moussaoui trial is so gripping, unnerving and frustrating that I can’t stop reading it.

Once again, we need to ask Richard A. Serrano of the Los Angeles Times for more information.

Why? Think of it this way. Let’s say that some traitor to the pro-life cause was part of a plot to massacre thousands of people that he or she believed were trying to destroy Christianity. Then let’s say that this terrorist pled guilty and, on the witness stand, sat holding a Bible lined with Post-it notes and, during questioning, read verse after verse from those Holy Scriptures while attempting to defend the righteousness of the massacre.

Here’s my question: Wouldn’t you want to know what some of those verses said? Wouldn’t you want to know what traditional believers thought those verses actually mean (as opposed to being justifications for mass murder)?

With that in mind, let’s turn to Serrano’s latest Moussaoui trial report.

Moussaoui … repeated his deep hatred for Americans and predicted another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil before the end of President Bush’s term. He said the strike would be so catastrophic that the government would be forced to release him from prison.

“I fight,” he said. “And God will help me and free me.”

The 37-year-old Al Qaeda terrorist occupied the witness stand for nearly three hours. In his lap he fingered his worn copy of the Koran, sometimes flipping the pages to read a verse to the jury that he had marked with Post-it notes.

How about it? Is anyone else curious about those passages?

I looked around online and could not find any references that actually quoted the Koranic verses that he used in his defense. Across the Atlantic, reporting by Tom Baldwin in The Times did offer this summary, and many more details about Moussaoui’s hatred of Israel and the Jews:

Moussaoui quoted from the Koran which he said called on Muslims to fight for supremacy for Allah. He said that Islam taught that “we have to be the superpower, we have to be above you.”

Gerald Zerkin, for the defence, asked him why he hated the US and Americans.

“For theological reasons and life experience reasons,” he replied. “You are on a crusade, like [President] George W. Bush says. In Europe, they call New York ‘little Israel’,” he replied, attacking the US for being the first, in 1948, to recognise Israel, which he called the “Jewish state of Palestine.”

“There is no difference between the Jewish state of Palestine and Hawaii,” he said.

Once again, we hear the impact of his views of the Koran. But we do not hear what the Koran actually says, nor do we hear how others would interpret these — for him — deadly verses.

I think that we need that information. I think that is part of the story.

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Flight 93: Film what’s on the tape?

m40033It’s time for me to offer an apology to Richard A. Serrano of the Los Angeles Times. The other day I wondered if he had avoided, on purpose, the religious actions and statements in the testimony and evidence at the Alexandria, Va., trial of the smiling terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. I mentioned this while discussing the emotional landmines facing the creators of the new movie United 93.

Well, in his follow-up report, Serrano had to deal with the actual contents of the 31-minute cockpit tape from that doomed flight, and he did not flinch. It is hard to know what part of this agonizing story to quote and, for me, it was by far the best MSM report I saw on that stage of the trial (feel free to cite others in the comments section). For starters, there is the lead:

The government completed its case against Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday with its single most chilling piece of evidence — a tape from the cockpit of Flight 93 that recorded the terrorists overwhelming the pilots on Sept. 11, 2001, slashing their throats and praising Allah before crashing the jet into a Pennsylvania field.

Does reading that make you uncomfortable? Here is how the Wall Street Journal put it in a short editorial-page feature on the contents of that tape:

We wonder how many Americans got the same eerie chill that we did reading the partial transcript yesterday of the final 31 minutes of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. Especially in this holy season of Easter and Passover, it was disturbing to read the hijackers swear fanatic allegiance to another great religion as they squeezed the life out of pleading flight attendants and pointed the jet down to smash in a Pennsylvania field.

Now, transfer that feeling to dark theaters from coast to coast, with the action unfolding — prayer by prayer, box-cutter slash by box-cutter slash — on giant screens with Surround Sound.

united93Try to imagine how this movie will make moderate Muslims feel. But imagine how the critics of the Islamists — critics who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, secular or whatever — will feel if the gripping religious details of the terrorists’ lives and beliefs are softened or edited. Now turn that around and imagine how people on both sides of the divide will feel about depictions of the words and actions of the passengers who rebelled. There are highly detailed tapes and testimonies to deal with, in the age of cell phones and home answering machines.

How can the moviemakers walk that tightrope? A reporter like Serrano best serves his readers by getting out of the way and letting the voices speak. Can Hollywood executives do the same thing? The bottom line: Will the Muslim street cheer or jeer this movie? What about the audience that turned out for The Passion of the Christ?

Or will everyone just stay home?

How will journalists and ticket-buyers respond to this?

An air-traffic controller interjects from somewhere on the ground, obviously confused over what he is hearing. “We just — we didn’t get it clear,” he says. “Is that United 93 calling?”

In Arabic comes this answer: “Jassim.”

“In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most compassionate.”

Or this:

The terrorists, talking with each other in Arabic, consider bringing a pilot who might still be alive back into the cockpit to talk to ground control. It now appears the hijackers too are growing confused, and worried about the passengers. “In the name of Allah,” shouts one, “I bear witness that there is no other [G]od but Allah.”

There is much more. So far, only people from Time — in this age of cross-media promotional work — have seen the movie. An online review notes, mentioning the moviegoers who urged theaters to stop showing the United 93 trailer:

Perhaps those who saw the trailer didn’t realize that this was the one flight, of the four hijacked that day, with an inspiring ending. This was the one on which the good guys, following passenger Todd Beamer’s John Wayne-like invocation, “Let’s roll,” foiled the bad guys. The saga of this flight makes for, in 9/11 terms, a feel-good movie. Just as important, United 93, at which Time was given an exclusive first look, is a good movie — taut and implacable — that honors the deeds of the passengers while being fair, if anyone cares, to the hijackers’ jihad bravado. (At one point the passengers are heard murmuring the Lord’s Prayer while the hijackers whisper their prayers to Allah.) If this is a horror movie, it is an edifying one, a history lesson with the pulse of a world-on-the-line suspense film.

If anyone cares? You have to be joking, this soon after the cartoon crisis. All kinds of people are going to care, whether they pay money to see the movie or not.

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Who says there’s nothing funny about Islamofascism?

nightjourneyofmuhammadThe interweb is buzzing about last night’s South Park episode. Did Comedy Central forbid creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker from showing an image of Muhammad? In the episode, Kyle, one of the show’s main characters, persuades network executives to run a Family Guy cartoon with a short scene including Muhammad. Kyle gives a speech about the importance of free speech. The Volokh Conspiracy, which broke the story, quoted Kyle’s speech, which ended:

“If you don’t show [Muhammad], then you’ve made a distinction between what is OK to make fun of and what isn’t. Either it’s all OK or none of it is. Do the right thing.”

At the point in the episode where Muhammad is supposed to be shown, the South Park creators inserted two statements:

In this shot, [Muhammad] hands a football helmet to Family Guy.

Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of [Muhammad] on their network.

Eventually (spoiler alert!) Al Qaeda broadcasts its own cartoon showing Americans, President Bush and Jesus defacating on each other and the American flag. You know, say what you want about them, Stone and Parker sure know how to embarrass their own network.

Many blogs have been up in pixels about the censorship, but it looks like David Bauder of the Associated Press is the first mainstream reporter to cover the issue. He also provided a bit of historical context about how the show came to be written:

In an elaborately constructed two-part episode of their Peabody Award-winning cartoon, “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper’s publishing of caricatures of Muhammad. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.

A brief interjection here to point out that AP reporter gives the impression that Muslims are unanimous in their belief that any physical representation of Muhammad is blasphemous. That’s not true. And while many reporters, myself included, repeated this untruth, Bauder has had a few months to learn from our mistakes. It is not acceptable for reporters to repeat this talking point without acknowledging reality. The 1514 picture I used here is The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go here for more Muslim physical representations of Muhammad that are supposedly not allowed.

And if you are going to say that Muslims find representations of their prophet to be blasphemous, why not mention what Christians think of portraying their divine Savior in such a disrespectful manner? Do they think not think it’s blasphemous? Is it the notion of blasphemy that is the undercurrent to this story? Or is it the threat of violence? Okay, back to our story:

When the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers worldwide in January and February, it sparked a wave of protests primarily in Islamic countries.

Parker and Stone were angered when told by Comedy Central several weeks ago that they could not run an image of Muhammad, according to a person close to the show who didn’t want to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.

The network’s decision was made over concerns for public safety, the person said.

Comedy Central said in a statement issued Thursday: “In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision.” Its executives would not comment further.

Wow. And wow. There can be no question that an image of Jesus defacating on flags and President Bush during Holy Week is blasphemous and offensive. So how to explain Comedy Central’s decision? Especially considering that Comedy Central used to show Muhammad images with vigor? I certainly hope that my journalistic brethren will investigate this with rigor.

I’m a bad prognosticator of these things, and increasingly cynical, but I worry that this story will just go away. And I worry the media will simply acquiesce to violent demands rather than uphold the virtue of tolerance of all perspectives — including offensive ones like South Park‘s. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that there is much of a difference between the cowardly decision of almost every mainstream newspaper, including the standard-bearing New York Times, to hide the news (that is, the cartoon images of Muhammad which sparked the violent and fatal riots by some Muslims across the globe) and Comedy Central’s decision.

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Scientology birthing “controversy”

katie holmesI have a fairly low tolerance for celebrity “news.” I especially disdain with the greatest disgust the current rage regarding celebrity childbirth, as if it were the latest fad or cool thing to try out. And I do not have any sympathy for those birthing the babies (I do feel great sorrow for the babies). The celebrities thrive off celebrity and need it to keep their careers afloat, as much as it is degrading to humanity.

So when I stumbled across this Associated Press story on the religion page of about the birthing plans of Katie Homes and Tom Cruise, I was miffed. What does this gossip piece have to do with religion?

Other than the issue of Scientology — and how it “controversially” forbids any noise during a birth — the article is just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo Hollywood gossip (for more debate on whether Scientology is actually a religion, click here):

Tom Cruise has been practically shouting from the rooftops about his love for his pregnant fiancee, Katie Holmes. But when their much-anticipated baby is born, the superstar dad probably won’t say a word.

Cruise, a longtime Scientologist who introduced Holmes to the faith, is likely to follow Scientology’s practice of quiet birth. Followers believe the absence of talk and other noise in the delivery room is more healthful for mother and baby.

No one’s saying publicly where baby Cruise will enter the world, but if it is at the actor’s Beverly Hills home then noise control might prove a challenge. Buzzing paparazzi are already camped aside the property.

With the little one expected soon, tabloids and gossip Web sites have been rife with chatter about silent birth, spawning much speculation about what it is and isn’t.

The article fails to cite official Scientology authorities, but relies on a “self-professed ‘Scientology mom’” who was quickly contradicted by actress Anne Archer, a 30-year Scientologist who denounced the silent birth speculation as “ridiculous.” Scientologists apparently like to see their children brought into an “environment as calm, quiet and loving as possible.” Isn’t that just peachy. Archer added that “any culture in the world would understand that and any woman who’s given birth would understand that.”

Give me a break. Every culture? All women? Of course I can’t speak for women, or for the cultures of this world, the way Archer can, so I’m going to move on.

The article reads like a press release for the greatness of Scientology. Not that I see anything controversial about keeping a room quite while a baby is born, but if you are going to examine the subject, please talk to more than a few Scientologists and a Beverly Hills obstetrician, whose best comment was “You’re not going to yell at the patient. You may talk to them in a calming fashion and the patient will gain comfort from hearing your voice.”

I’ve only been present at one birth in my life (my own, 24 years ago), but I’m guessing that yelling at a woman giving birth is a bad idea.

How about examining the scientific claims behind L. Ron Hubbard’s writings that said infants should not be touched, spoken to or cleaned for the first 24 hours after birth? Or that mothers should not talk to their kid for 24 hours?

Do Scientologists still believe that today? I’m just dying to know. Oh wait, I really don’t care. Keep these stories to the gossip pages,

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Reporters, crow’s ears and Karma Light nuns

Crozier Molesme BRHappy birthday to me (sort of). This is the week that I get to celebrate the birthday of the weekly “On Religion” column that I write for the Scripps Howard News Service.

I have always had an odd way of marking this anniversary, which I explain in this week’s actual column — which is an odd kind of sequel to a GetReligion post that had the headline “So a reporter walks into a church (rimshot).” It was about funny mistakes that reporters sometimes make when they try to cover religion news.

Anyway, here is the new column, which could be called “Reporters, crow’s ears and Karma Light nuns.” I’ll add a few fun links, where possible.

The Vatican is known its complex rituals, rich in ancient symbols and mysterious details. Take, for example, the funeral of Pope John Paul II, as described by the International Herald Tribune.

“The 84-year-old John Paul was laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop’s miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows,” wrote Ian Fisher of the New York Times. “Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

Get the joke? You see, that ornate silver shepherd’s crook is actually called a crosier (or “crozier”), not a “crow’s ear.”

This is the kind of error that believers love to cite as evidence that too many journalists don’t know which way is up when it comes to religion. Believe me, I receive more than my share of emails offering other examples. Did a BBC producer really write a subtitle saying that “Karma Light” nuns had gathered to mourn the pope?

Part of the problem is that religious people often speak in unknown tongues and it’s hard for journalists to tell what they’re saying. Thus, mistakes happen. It’s a bad thing to mess up the words when many of the words are sacred.

Sometimes, it helps to laugh.

Once a year, I mark this column’s anniversary — this is No. 18 — by collecting some of the strange words and events from the previous 12 months that just didn’t fit anywhere in particular. Obviously, I know that journalists make mistakes on the “God beat.” But, believe me, the folks in the pulpits and pews can get pretty strange, too.

dry brush papal cross3* Pope John Paul II made headlines in 1986 when he visited a synagogue. Thus, a BBC writer said that the new Pope Benedict XVI’s “visit to the Cologne synagogue … will mark only the second time in history that a head of the Catholic Church has entered a Jewish place of worship.” A reader sent me that item with this postscript: “Not counting the apostle Peter, obviously.”

* I thought this was a hoax. But it does appear that South Bronx Episcopalians have created a hip-hop Book of Common Prayer. Thus saith Bishop Catherine Roskam: “If Jesus were alive today, he would have been a rapper.”

I also love that the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare is selling its own barbecue apron. Grill on.

* Anyone seeking information on the year’s hottest musical trend should visit Yes, you read that right.

* Back to Pope Benedict XVI. It seems that someone at the Associated Press needs to bone up on church history. A story from Vatican City on Nov. 27 began this way: “Pope Benedict XVI ushered in the Christmas season Sunday, calling it a time for joy when Christians should find it within themselves to hope that they can change the world.” Actually, the pope was marking the start of Advent, the penitential season that precedes Christmas. The 12-day Christmas season begins on Dec. 25.

* Speaking of the Christmas wars, a journalist sent me this rather understated headline from Miami Beach: “Blindfolded Santa Hanging From Noose At Home Upsets Neighborhood.” I can understand that.

What I cannot understand is why some schools allow students to sing “Feliz Navidad (Happy Christmas),” but not “White Christmas” and other songs that contain the C-word.

* You knew this was coming. The truly devoted can now buy an <a iBelieve device that clicks on to the top of an Apple iPod Shuffle and turns it — yes — into a large white cross that can be worn around the neck.

I believe that has a bit more class than those gym shorts with the words “Left Behind” printed, well, you can imagine where.

* The publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad upset many readers. However, other readers were just as upset when newspapers declined to publish them, with editors saying — to a chorus of snickers in many pews — that they did not want to offend religious believers.

Thus, one Bob Flavell wrote to the Boston Globe and said: “I find all of your editorial cartoons deeply offensive, morally, religiously, philosophically and spiritually. In fact, I don’t like your editorials, either. And the editorializing in your news coverage is annoying as well. In keeping with your cowardly policy not to offend anyone, kindly cease publication at once.”

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Powerful ghosts aboard United 93

United93 Splash 01At the moment, the basic news story template for the release of the movie United 93 turns on this question: Is the public ready to buy tickets to see a sad movie about 9/11?

In other words, “Is this entertainment?” You can see a perfect example of this template in reporter Scott Martelle’s Los Angeles Times story about the movie and its prospects for success.

However, I think I see another story coming and it is one based on two other questions.

(1) How will the filmmakers handle the faith elements in the words and actions of the citizens who bravely rushed forward to seize control of the airplane (and, thus, save the U.S. Capitol)?

(2) How will the filmmakers handle the faith elements in the words and actions of the Muslims who bravely rushed forward to hijack the airplane as part of their jihad efforts, seeking their own eternal salvation and the defeat of what they believed was a demonic nation bent on the destruction of Islam?

This may be a big, big story. There are people on both sides who are going to be watching every bit of Godtalk in this film and taking notes. There is no way to please all of them, or any of them.

Too much Christianity? Too little Christianity? Did the filmmakers have the courage to let the Christians on the doomed plane say what they actually said?

Too much Islam? Too little Islam? Did the filmmakers have the courage to let the Islamists on the doomed planes say what they actually said? What about the rites and prayers in their briefing books? They prepared mentally, physically and spiritually. Will the details be in the movie?

Another article in the Los Angeles Times offer clues to how hard it will be to handle this material. I am referring to Richard A. Serrano’s update from Alexandria, Va., on the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. Key testimony centered on the waves of telephone calls — 37 in all — made by passangers and flight attendants aboard Flight 93.

The story discusses several of these calls, but avoids religion. What do the flight recorders say about this issue? What about the testimony of the loved ones? I would honestly like to know if these issues came up in the courtroom.

An important witness was Det. Sgt. Ray Guidetti of the New Jersey State Police, a member of an FBI anti-terrorism task force in Newark. He offered detailed summaries of information about the calls. Serrano writes:

Todd Beamer tried to make four calls. The first three didn’t go through. The fourth was to a phone operator. He reported there were three males with knives, and “one wearing a bomb.” He believed the pilot and copilot were dead or injured on the floor in first class.

The phone operator could hear commotion and Beamer shouting, “The plane is going down!” “Are you ready?” someone said in the background.

Then someone said, “Let’s roll” — the oft-quoted signal from a passenger who led the revolt.

Beamer’s story has been told many times and it is hard to leave God out of it. What will happen in the movie?

And what about Moussaoui himself? Does he express his views in purely secular language? It would appear so, judging by Serrano’s story.

After the Pentagon testimony Tuesday, Moussaoui cried out, “Burn all the Pentagon the next time!” After Guidetti had described the calls from Flight 93, Moussaoui yelled, “Let’s roll to victory!”

What kinds of words and actions will United 93 include?

As the A&E network’s cable movie demonstrated, it will be hard to strike a balance that blesses secular viewers, Christian viewers, moderate Muslim viewers and those who speak for the Islamists. The ghosts in this story are everywhere and people will care about what does, and what does not, show up on the big screen.

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Work that Rolodex

rolodexWell, the Judas Gospel story, the one that was supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity, seems to have passed away rather quickly. Christianity was similarly unfazed by the week’s reports that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, and that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph. Let’s see if Christianity implodes under the allegation that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

The Judas Gospel thread had a number of comments. I wanted to share a few because they highlight a problem that reaches beyond the National Geographic public relations incident. I had questioned why all of the stories about Judas quoted the same narrow group of scholars. Amy Welborn shared her thoughts:

I’m guessing that the consistency that we see in the press stories are on this are due to nothing else than dependence on the press packet. The voices in the stories are all “consultants” and experts to the project. [Donald] Senior and [Craig] Evans are both in the program.

Reader Matt agreed that reporters on this story suffered from limited Rolodexes. He explained a bit more about how reporters get their sources:

I’ve worked at two newspapers. Every reporter at these papers had lists of experts provided by different sources. Stanford University made sure that each reporter had actual Rolodex cards to be filed by topic. For instance, there was an economics card with the names and phone numbers of several professors good for a quote. San Jose State’s College of Sciences and Arts published a little booklet titled “Knowledge Resources for Journalists” with the same kind of information. (Every election Dr. Terry Christiansen from the Poli Sci dept is interviewed on TV at least once.) One of my colleagues had a list of experts published by U.C. Berkeley stuck on her cubicle wall. Does Holy Cross or St. Vladimir’s or Biola or Franciscan of Steubenville publish similar lists and get them into the hands of reporters?

And everyone knows that Elaine Pagel’s agent is Royce Carlton. Royce Carlton makes money by getting bookings for their clients. They need to keep their client in the public eye and make sure that she is available to reporters covering any story related to any of her books or speaking topics. Does anyone know who Archbishop Dmitiri’s agent is? Or who is Harold O.J. Brown’s agent? Or who is Scott Hahn’s agent? How would a reporter reach these people? Does the average reporter know that these people, who would offer a different view than that of Pagels, even exist? I doubt it. The economic incentive to get their names out is not as great as it is for Pagels.

We reporters have our go-to sources. And we love it when a good public relations firm helps us locate folks who can speak coherently and competently, particularly when we’re approaching a deadline. But, as we saw, there are pitfalls with this. A wide variety of sources, especially for complex religious topics, helps reporters avoid embarrassing themselves like many of them did in promoting National Geographic‘s magazine sales and television show.

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Martin Peretz gets religion

Martin PeretzMartin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, must read GetReligion. I always know, when I read a piece by Peretz on the Middle East, I will be getting and honest and knowledgeable assessment on the conflict, but I wasn’t aware of his ability to grill a public figure for incoherent comments on religious matters.

I found one of his most recent blog posts, on the comments of presidential wannabe and already-run Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as quoted in a recent New York Times article, to be quite impressive. Kerry said that “not in one page, not in one phrase uttered and reported by the Lord Jesus Christ, can you find anything that suggests that there is a virtue in cutting children from Medicare.”

Peretz, doing my job, ripped into Kerry:

I’d actually go Kerry one further: I doubt that Jesus ever mentioned Medicare at all. Still, it’s probably significant that some presidential aspirants — Kerry, for one — want to demonstrate that there are among them some real live Democrats for God. Or, as the Times said about him, he is “A Roman Catholic, who has struggled at times to talk about his own faith … Mr. Kerry also told the group that he believed ‘deeply in my faith’.” Now, there are many Catholics including high ecclesiastics who doubt this. But who am I to have a point of view on what is essentially an intramural fight? In any case, as it turns out, Kerry is not only a Roman Catholic but also an ecumenicist.

Kerry also said the Koran, the Torah, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles had influenced a social conscience that he exercised in politics. To this Peretz said:

[L]et me ask: What hadith of the Prophet influenced him the most, and why? And here I have a personal interest: Which of the injunctions of Leviticus and who among the Prophets have the most meaning for him? Ordinarily, of course, I wouldn’t ask such personal questions of a politician. In the spirit of Jesus, Kerry will certainly forgive me for doing so.

Sure Peretz is being somewhat picky, but that is what we do here. Those who know religion must critique public figures invoking religious themes and historical analogies. While I would expect a reporter writing about such comments to ask probing questions and dig into the subject instead of merely rewriting what was said, I realize that is not always going to happen for a variety of reasons. That’s why we’re here, and it’s comforting to know that others are helping us out with the job.

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