Here are two exchanges about the Milwaukee 14, the first with a student, Dyllan Taxman, the second with a Milwaukee-based writer, Pegi Taylor…
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Here are responses to questions I received from Dyllan Taxman, an eighth student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For a history research project, Dyllan decided to look into an act of civil disobedience that I took part in back in the summer of 1968 — September 24 — when the Vietnam War was raging. A group of fourteen people broke into nine draft boards that had offices side by side in a Milwaukee office building, put the main files into burlap bags, then burned the papers with homemade napalm in a small park in front of the office building while reading aloud from the Gospel. We awaited arrest, were jailed for a month, freed on bail, then tried the following year, after which we went to prison for more than a year (for most of us it was 13 months).
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>> What made you do this?
I had been in the military myself so didn’t have to worry about the draft, but as a draft counselor (a big part of my work with the Catholic Peace Fellowship) I was painfully aware of how thousands of young people were being forced to do military service in an unjust war about which they knew little or nothing, or even opposed. Anyone who knew the conditions for a just war could see this war did not qualify.
It seemed to me that people committed to the Gospel ought to offer some sort of witness against the war and conscription (really, a kind of slavery). I had been impressed by a similar but smaller action in Catonsville, Maryland, in which the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan — both good friends — had played a major role. It seemed to offer a model.
>> How did all 14 of you meet?
Bonds of friendship. Many of us knew Michael Cullen, a founder of the Casa Maria Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Milwaukee. As I recall, the idea began to take shape when Dan Berrigan and I were staying with Mike and Nettie at Casa Maria while in Milwaukee to speak at a national conference of Franciscan teaching nuns.
>> Who would you say was the leader of the group?
There was no leader. It was very much a group effort. I was a kind of press secretary (my background is mainly in journalism) and did the first draft for the group’s statement, but that too was something we all had a hand in.
>> Were you scared?
You bet! I recall my knees shaking as Jim Harney and I walked together to the building where the draft boards had their offices.
>> Did you tell your family about this before-hand? If so, did they approve? If not, were they shocked to find out? (did they agree with it or not)
A few people in the family knew. The ones I talked with approved.
>> How long did you plan this out? Was it spontaneous or carefully planned?
There was very careful planning — several weeks of preparation.
>> What do you think is the effect, now 38 years later, of the act that you, and the rest of the 14 did that day?
I was amazed at the impact — more than I would have expected: a two-page photo in Life magazine of the action, front page coverage in newspapers across the country, reports on TV news programs nationwide, national press attention while the trial was going on, respected poets coming to Milwaukee to do public readings in our support, lectures given by various scholars, supportive mail from all sorts of people (one of the astronauts on the first moon trip sent me as photo he had taken of the earth from space). One of the “epistles” in Leonard Bernstein’s “The Mass” was a letter about visiting me in prison.
Now, 38 years later, of course it’s just one item on a long list of protest actions that occurred during the Vietnam War. What surprises me is that it hasn’t been altogether forgotten. I recently received a newly made Milwaukee 14 poster!
>> Do you think that your actions that day had an affect on the draft?
Sure. For starters it closed down conscription for a time in a major US city. In Milwaukee for several months the only people who were sent to the war were volunteers. Judging from the mail we received, I think we helped more draft-eligible people decide that they would not take part in the war. More people became conscientious objectors. The fact that about half our groups were Catholic priests (and one a Christian Brother teaching economics at Note Dame) meant that our action had particular impact on the Catholic Church. It probably was a factor in the opposition to the war that was increasingly voiced by the Catholic hierarchy.
>> Do you approve with more recent protest such as protesting the soldiers in Iraq?
I’m not quite sure what the question is here. Do you mean protesting the war in Iraq? If so, I wish there were a great deal more protest. I am puzzled that the protest that have been going on hasn’t involved far more people. I see most of the soldiers in Iraq, even though volunteers for military service, as victims of the war who were driven to volunteer because of poverty and joblessness. Many of them, even if they come home alive and without physical injuries, will spend the rest of their lives battling with deep psychological scars and a haunted conscience.
>> Do you think that your motives for this protest are/were completely understood by the public or do you think that your actions were in some way misunderstood?
There were a great many who understood. It was, after all, a very simple deed. The religious basis was clearly expressed. A major goal was to encourage more draft resistance and indeed there was more. But of course there were many people who were astonished or even scandalized to see Catholic priests and committed lay people putting their freedom on the line by such an act of civil disobedience, and couldn’t understand.
I think for most if not all of us, the trial was at least as important as the action. We hoped to make the trial not so much a trial of fourteen people accused of burning papers but hoped to put an immoral and illegal war on trial. And that’s pretty much what happened. (If you have time to go the Library Archive at Marquette, my friend Phil Runkel can show you what they have re the Milwaukee 14. Probably they have a copy of the essay Francine du Plessix Gray wrote about the trial for the New York Review of Books. (Later it was included in a book called “Trials of the Resistance” — see: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/11/18/m14trial/.)
>> Do you still keep in touch with other members of the original 14?
Yes. I’m most often in touch with Bob Graf, who still lives in Milwaukee. I hope you have occasion to meet him. Thanks to Bob and Pat Graf, we had a Milwaukee 14 get-together in Milwaukee a few years ago.
>> Did you feel that during your stay in prison that you were a political prisoner?
I didn’t think much about myself in terms of such a label, but certainly we were seen as such by other prisoners, the guards, wardens, etc.
>> Did any of you end up going to Vietnam?
One of my regrets is that, for all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve never been to Vietnam. I lived in France for a time with a Vietnamese community and so am used to Vietnamese culture, food, music, etc., but I wish I might have visited Vietnam.
>> Would you do the same actions today if the same situation presented itself?
My present health being as it is — because of kidney illness I have to be at the local hospital three times a week for dialysis (an artificial kidney used to filter my blood) — major acts of civil disobedience would be quite problematic. [Postscript: In October 2007 a kidney donated by my wife was successfully transplanted.]
Also I think property destruction is not the ideal model of nonviolent protest — it’s on the borderline. I am still troubled by the cleaning woman we had to restrain when we entered the draft boards. What if we had caused her to have a heart attack? There is also the problem of secrecy. To plan actions of this type requires secrecy — and that in turn inspires distrust and suspicion. Also some of the actions that followed made me question what we had done. We stood around and took full public responsibility for what we did, welcoming the trial. Later in the draft board actions tended to become “hit and run” — actions often done anonymously. These had their value but in my view lacked the impact of actions in which those responsible said, “I did it, I’m glad, and here’s why.”
>> In the Constitution it states that when a government fails to protect your natural rights (one of which being life) you have the duty to overthrow it and form a new one. Then again, John Locke, one of the major influences on the framers of the constitution stated that you have to follow the laws and rules of the government in exchange for the protection of these rights (this is called the Social Contract). That situation seems to create a paradox in the situation you were in. What is your opinion on that?
My main text is the Gospel. The example of the saints is also important. I saw what we were attempting as being similar to what Jesus did in driving the money changers out of the temple. No one was injured or killed, but he made a protest which is recalled in each of the four Gospels. In the process he signed his own death sentence. His action surely had a great deal to do with the decision made by the religious leaders of the time that Jesus would be better dead.
>> Regarding Civil Disobedience, when do you think it is appropriate to break the law? And who should decide that? Also, when (if ever) is it considered all right to infringe on other peoples rights?
I’m not an anarchist. Laws may not be perfect but most of them exist to help us live together peacefully. Most of them are like barriers along the edge of a dangerous road that help keep us from driving into a ravine. But when a law is socially destructive, then we are obliged, as St. Peter said, “to obey God rather than man.”
>> What do you think the impact of this act was on your life specifically?
Every choice you make has consequences in your life and the lives of the people around you. Even little choices matter. If you’re in a bad mood, it will effect each and every person in your family. If you do something helpful — even a small thing like volunteering to wash dishes — that has a positive effect on the people you live with.
Being in prison was, for me, not without blessings. It gave me time to do some extremely valuable reading. Finally I read books like “The Brothers Karamazov”, which Dorothy Day had so often urged me to read. I became a more prayer-centered person. I spent time every day reading the Gospel and thinking about it. I got to know my fellow prisoners and their stories — amazing lives. Some of them were not guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted — others were certainly guilty — but from each of them there was something to learn.
The very worst thing about prison was not seeing my son Ben for more than a year. When I think back on that, this still causes me great anguish. But I think too of soldiers who went to Vietnam and never saw their wives or children again, or came home with terrible injuries. My losses, and my son Ben’s, are hardly worth mentioning compared to that.
Thanks, Dyllan, for your probing questions.
PS There’s an autobiographical essay, “Getting from There to Here,” at this web address:
February 2, 2006
note: In the photo, I’m the guy wearing a tie standing near the left end. At the far left is a Milwaukee journalist taking notes.
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May 29, 1993
interview with Jim Forest by Pegi Taylor for Wisconsin magazine
How did you hear about the August  retreat in New Jersey?
I was in Washington for the National Liturgical Conference and George Mische, one of the Catonsville Nine, was in DC as well. I didn’t realize then but eventually it became clear that he thought of his post-Catonsville role as organizing actions. He took me for a walk and asked me if I was interested in joining the next action. He had a close connection with Phil Berrigan so it was clear he meant something on the lines of what the Catonsville Nine had done. I said yes, feeling as I said it as if I had been hit by lightning.
Why did you decide to get involved in the Milwaukee action?
Having been in the US Navy, I had no further military obligation myself, so I wasn’t myself facing the draft. I had left a job as a journalist with a daily newspaper in order to work full-time as secretary of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and as a result was counseling conscientious objectors almost every day. It was good and useful work, but I felt that what I was doing wasn’t enough. It seemed to me that those who opposed the war might have to make a greater sacrifice, at least the kind of sacrifice that was taken for granted in the military: being taken away from home and family. (I was married and had a young son.)
A most important factor was the war in Vietnam itself. It was clear that a great many people had to find ways to impede a war which was killing vast numbers of civilians. I was also concerned about what involvement in such a war would do to US soldiers.
A big factor in the decision was my closeness to Dan Berrigan. I knew Phil Berrigan also, but not as well. I got to know most of the people in the Catonsville Nine group and was much involved in their defense committee. I had a lot of respect for these people and what they did, though it didn’t occur to me at first that it ought to be a model for another action, not to say a series of similar actions.
Another factor was my close contact with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. Through him I developed a deep feeling for the people of Vietnam and for the Vietnamese culture. The Fellowship of Reconciliation had set up his speaking tours in the USA; on at least two cross-country trips, I travelled with him. This friendship made the horror of the war very concrete to me.
Another influence was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker and one of the speakers at the Liturgical Conference that year. Dorothy used the occasion to express her admiration for the Catonsville Nine and what they had done. I can’t recall exactly what she said, except that she compared the burning of draft records with Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. (Not many months later she was to do an about-face on the subject; while she still sympathized with all those who had carried out such actions, she came to the conclusion that she couldn’t support property destruction as a tactic of draft resistance.)
Had you considered getting involved in similar actions?
The only similar event up to that time was the Catonsville action. Had I known about it at the right moment, quite possibly I would have taken part. I can’t say. But as I recall I was on a cross-country speaking trip with Thich Nhat Hanh when it was being planned.
Did you see your participation as an act of Catholic witness?
Very much so. It seemed to me one of the tragedies of history that Christians, since the age of Constantine, had rarely put their obedience to Christ ahead of their obedience to the state. I was aware that few German or Austrian Catholics had resisted Hitler’s wars, that resistance to Hitler by the Church hierarchy had simply not happened, and that, far from being abnormal, this was typical of the role of the Church in a wide variety of political settings for centuries: “good” (meaning obedient) citizens first, followers of Christ only to the extent it didn’t conflict with obligations imposed by the state. Yet Christ had never killed anyone or blessed any act of killing — very much the opposite.
It also seemed to me that for a Christian passivity is never enough. It isn’t enough not to commit an evil act; it’s necessary to try to change the minds of those who are harming others and to try to protect through active steps harm being done to others. More often than not, words aren’t enough. Often an action, even if it is only a symbolic gesture, is needed. Communication, in any event, is never simply verbal. The name “communication” is how you live, the spirit in which you live, and the choices you make.
How did leadership evolve within the group?
There was practically no leadership that I can recall. Decisions were made by consensus coming out of meetings, though sometimes consensus wasn’t easily reached. Everybody was listened to seriously and eventually we were of one mind about what to do. One of the hardest decisions we came to was the decision to defend ourselves in court. But I think we all felt very good about this decision once we got to it and never had second thoughts about it.
What role did you take in planning the action after the retreat?
Not much of a role. I wasn’t one of those looking for places where the action might happen. There were several cities that were being considered (New York City, where I lived, wasn’t one of hem) and two or three people appointed to see what the possibilities might be. When we met to hear the reports, it was clear that Milwaukee was the best site; more people from our group came from Milwaukee than any place else and there were nine draft boards side by side on the same floor of the same office building, with a convenient little park ideal for burning the draft records right across the street.
Were you roughed up by the police after the arrest?
Apart from handcuffs being made unnecessarily tight in a few cases, there is nothing to complain about that I recall. From our side, it was clear that whatever we were protesting, it wasn’t the police. We did our best to make that clear to them.
How do you see the relationship between the goals of the action and the goals of the trial then and now?
From the start it was clear in my mind, and probably in everyone’s mind, that the trial would be more important than the action. The action created the trial, and the trial might be, if we were lucky, a forum in which a great many issues of importance could be discussed. We hoped that the courtroom drama might have some influence in the way many others thought about the war and what personal response they could make to it. The action also gave us an event to speak about in many churches and colleges; in the months before the trial I did a lot of travelling, speaking all over the country from New England to Hawaii.
How would you compare your trial with the Chicago 7 trial?
I was in prison and couldn’t attend the Chicago trial. I didn’t see most of the press coverage. I can’t compare it.
Did you or others consider some sort of direct action to dramatize Judge Larson’s rulings?
Apart from some minor protests in the courtroom, none that I now recall. In fact I often felt a great deal of sympathy for Judge Larson, a decent man who gave us more chance to be heard than most other judges would have allowed and who was clearly wrestling with some of the issues we were raising. Still, it’s a pity he couldn’t have gone further, allowing the jury to hear more than it did. And it’s a pity he wasn’t in the end convinced that such an act of civil disobedience was justified in its context. But miracles rarely happen in courtrooms.
Why didn’t the trial get more media coverage?
Few who are hoping for headlines are satisfied with what they get. I doubt Sam Goldwyn thought Gone With the Wind got enough publicity. But we did amazingly well. There was the coverage the night of the action on NBC national news, with the film of the action being shown; the following week there was a two-page photo spread in Life magazine; both the action and the trial were all over the national press; the trial was sometimes on page one of The New York Times; there was a long essay about the trial in The New York Review of Books (a piece later published as part of a book, The Ultra Resistance); the composer Leonard Bernstein used a letter (written by Linda Henry about her first visit with me in prison) from that essay in one of his compositions, The Mass, a piece of music still being played. The Milwaukee papers, of course, gave the event and trial a great deal of attention and while one could complain about mistakes, omissions, occasional slanting, etc., still I think the reporters and editors did an honest job. And there was a play made about the trial, but the company that planned to put it on stage backed away from the script when it received advice that staging the play might jeopardize its foundation support and its tax-exempt status. (I have a copy of the script. Maybe someday it will at least be seen on a stage in Milwaukee.)
Did you do anything to try and increase media attention?
We had an excellent defense committee, people like Richard Zipfel), Bill Sell, Linda Henry and quite a number of others, all smart, resourceful people who in every possible way tried to help build something on the foundation of the action. This included their work with the press, which it seems to me was quite effective.
What was it like being in jail?
I would need a lot of time to fully answer that. I would just stress that in my case, the best thing about it was the chance it gave me to read and to deepen my spiritual life.
It was during that year that I started reading Dostoevsky, a writer who has had quite an influence on me since then. Still more important, I carefully re-read the New Testament.
I started using the rosary again, after some years of neglecting it. I never missed Mass. In a variety of ways I found my spiritual life getting steadily deeper while I was locked up and I am grateful for that to this day.
One of the most positive experiences I had in prison was getting a photo of the earth from space taken by one of the astronauts involved in NASA’s first moon-landing trip in July 1969. All the astronauts were military officers so it doubly impressed me that one of them would have thought about us, in such an appreciative way, while in space looking down at the earth, and, in the tumult of activity following their return, remembered to send me such a photo. The very same photo was used in the cover of Life magazine the week I received it at Waupun. On the other hand I had a lot of trouble being allowed to receive it. The “correspondent” wasn’t “approved”! Once I got it, it was the great treasure in my cell. I thought a lot about the earth, how beautiful it is, how small, and how invisible its political borders. There aren’t many gifts I’ve received in my life which meant nearly so much to me.
Jail was also a great place for listening. You get to hear a lot of life stories. Not everything you hear is true, but then you get to hear a lot of tall tales in the Navy. On the other hand you meet some people who really impress you in a positive way. You also occasionally meet people who were falsely convicted, and that makes you think a lot about what can be done to improve the court system.
If I were going to the same prisons today, I gather I would be in for a much harder experience. I’m told small prison cells in Waupun that had one inmate when I was there now have two, three or even four stuffed into them. That would be hell. How anybody can live in a tiny cell stacked in like herring and come not come out a greater danger to himself and to others, I don’t know.
How long were you in prison?
Including a month in the Milwaukee County Jail, I think it totaled 13 months. But that was much less than we had guessed we would serve when we were planning to burn draft records. I thought the most tangible victory we won in Judge Larson’s courtroom was a two-year sentence. (The Catonsville people had gotten six years and they did much less harm to the draft system than we did. They burned a single waste basket of paper; we burned hundreds of pounds of key draft files and in effect closed down Selective Service for a time in one major US city.)
What did you do while you were there?
I was at Waupun six months in two shifts, at Gordon Forestry Camp in the northwest for maybe two months between those shifts, and finally at Fox Lake for four months or so. I worked in the prison laundry, in a factory making office furniture, in a shipping department, in the kitchen, fought forest fires, helped clean state parks, worked at a trout hatchery; and finally was the clerk to the Catholic chaplain, Jim Koneazny (who still lives in Milwaukee though he has since married and left the active priesthood).
How did you view the other prisoners?
The great majority I got on with quite easily. I had grown up in poor neighborhood and later on been a part of the Catholic Worker community in New York City, which was in the Bowery area, so I was used to living with destitute people (at least 90 percent of the people in prison are poor).
I will never forget an older black man from Milwaukee. We worked side by side in the prison laundry at Waupun. By that time he had been in at least ten years. He was serving a life sentence for killing a guy who crashed into the back room of a Milwaukee bar where a wedding anniversary of my friend and his wife was being celebrated . The intruder insulted my friend’s wife. My friend, in blind rage and probably a bit the worse for wear from drinking, walked out to the car, came back with a gun he kept in his glove compartment, and shot the man. He told me he only meant to threaten the guy with the gun, to scare him off, but that the gun “just went off.” In any event, he killed a man. If the gun had been in my friend’s pocket and he had pulled it and shot the man on the spot, it would have been manslaughter. But the fact that he had gone to his car and come back with the gun made the crime premeditated murder. But what an honest, decent man he was, as fine a person as I’ve ever known. (I should add that he certainly took no pride in killing this other guy or justified it.)
How did the group feel about each other before and after the action?
We all had a high level of commitment to what we were doing. We got on quite well with each other both before and after the action, with the only hard part being Michael Cullen’s decision to pull out of the group and go on trial separately — a hard decision for him and hard for us too. But afterward, once we were both out of jail, it wasn’t stressful to resume my friendship with Michael, not at all. Yet I still regret we didn’t go through the same trials together.
Did people respond to you differently after the action and after the jail term?
That’s hard to know. It had a influence in some cases. For some we were heroes and that was embarrassing.
Women were excluded from the Milwaukee action. How does that look now?’
Silly, like a bird with one wing. The only good thing about it was, all being men, we had that month together in the Milwaukee County Jail, and that gave us the chance to come much closer to each other. Before that, most of our time together had been action-oriented.
What did you do once you were out of jail?
I joined Emmaus House, a community in East Harlem, New York, that was active in anti-war work, took in runaways, ran an educational program, and was involved in various inner-city projects. Later I became editor of Fellowship magazine for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a job I had when the war finally ended. Then in 1977 I moved to Holland to head the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, a job I remained with for 12 years.
What did you do during the build-up to the Gulf War?
By that time I was no longer on the staff of International Fellowship of Reconciliation but was running Peace Media Service, an agency that gets out news of nonviolent initiatives in defense of life, human rights and the environment. A lot of our work in that period had to do with the danger of war in the Gulf, and now we’re still covering its aftermath.
Were you involved in actions protesting US policy in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Yes, but I would want to add that it isn’t only the policies of the US government that have concerned me or which require protest.
How do you look on the situation in Bosnia?
It’s appalling and also poses a threat of a much larger war. It disturbs me that the press coverage in the US and most of western Europe focuses mainly on the war crimes committed by Serbians. God knows these are numerous but unfortunately the Serbs are far from alone in committing them. This Hollywood-like tendency to isolate one bad guy in the war is itself a factor that makes the war more dangerous.
I wish anti-military sanctions being imposed on Serbia were imposed on all combatants but at the same time humanitarian aid would be readily given to all who need it.
It also disturbs me that the peace groups that exist in all the republics of former Yugoslavia are more or less ignored in the US press. As long as the mass media considers violence more newsworthy than nonviolence, many will turn to violence just to be noticed and taken seriously.
What kinds of peace action have you been involved in during the past ten years?
It depends what you mean by peace action. My own definition of peace work is anything you do to help people live and to protect the environment. In my own life today, peace work ranges from trying to be a decent father and husband to what I am doing as an editor and writer. There are occasional acts of protest in my life, but that’s the exception.
What are doing now?
I’ve mentioned Peace Media Service. In addition I’m secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. (East-west peace work often took me the former USSR throughout the 80s; and of the results on my ever deepening contact with the Russian Orthodox Church was to become Orthodox myself. My wife and I belong to an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.)
I write books. The most recent, Living With Wisdom, is a biography of Thomas Merton. Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day, went out of print a few months ago but will be reissued this fall. Another recent book is Religion in the New Russia, about the impact of political change on religious life in the former USSR. Making Friends of Enemies [since revised and re-titled Loving Our Enemies] is still in print. There is also a recent children’s book, The Whale’s Tale, published in England, Holland and Germany — unfortunately not in the US. I also give lectures and occasionally lead retreats.
If you had it to do over again would you participate again in the Milwaukee 14 action?
Probably, but, if so, with more reluctance. Like so many men at that time, I was far more into my work than I was into being a parent. My year in prison was harder on my son than it was on me.
What advice would you give others drawn to social action?
Follow Christ — not the Berrigans, or Dorothy Day, or Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or anyone, however heroic, inspiring or saintly. Don’t be bullied or manipulated or guilt-tripped into obedience or disobedience. You have a conscience; learn to hear it; no one can hear it for you.
Protest is not the most important part of peace work. Don’t imagine that you need to do something that involves a prison term in order for it to be of value.
Pay no attention to those in the peace movement who make a big deal out of having been to prison; every movement, including the peace movement, has its John Wayne types.
Avoid civil disobedience if you think you’re not going to be able to make good use of that kind of confinement.
Be aware that going to prison can, for some, be a way of putting a moral facade on what is mainly an abandonment of relationships and people or a life that may seem too ordinary, too prosaic.
The main thing is to try to build up a consistent pro-life ethic that connects with what you’re doing for a living.
No less important is developing the deepest possible spiritual life. No one needs this more than those who are trying to do something constructive about the injustice and suffering in this world.
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Milwaukee 14-related link:
A one minute film of the burning of draft records in Milwaukee:
A piece about a whole earth photo that reached me in prison shortly after the first moon landing:
A long essay on the trial of the Milwaukee 14:
The Milwaukee 14 Today page on Bob Graf’s web site:
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posted February 2006; updated 1 October 2018
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