June 08, 2024

The Origins of Sadism


For a while now, I've been working on a new collection of essays. It's coming slowly, might take me 3 or 4 years. You have already read the first of these (scroll back a few posts), "The Never-Ending Conflict." The second is a family history, which I'm reluctant to post right now, esp. since this blog is about the collapse of America, and not about me. So here is essay #3, which documents Israeli sadism--something the US is only too happy to defend, and even support. I wrote it 2 or 3 weeks ago; given the intermittent but unfailing acts of Israeli sadism, it may already be a bit dated. But I also wanted to think about sadism in general, and why human beings--at least in "civilization"--engage in it. (War only dates from around 12,000 B.C., as a number of anthropologists and archaeologists have confirmed.) Anyway, here it is.

There is a story that around the time of Christ, a Roman centurion approached the eminent religious leader, Rabbi Hillel, and asked him to summarize the Torah for him in the time that he (the centurion) could balance himself on one foot. “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others,” said Hillel. “All the rest is merely elaboration.”

I have had numerous occasions, since 7 October 2023, to reflect on Hillel’s words—an early version of the Golden Rule, if you will. On that day, Hamas military forces entered the Be’eri kibbutz in southern Israel and murdered over 1,200 men, women, and children. The shock at this horror was worldwide, and much of humanity, Jews in particular, are still reeling from it.(1)

But a similar worldwide reaction occurred at the Israeli response to this, which was grossly disproportionate. Eight months after October 7, the IDF, or Israeli army, had murdered 36,000 Palestinians in the Gaza strip, two-thirds of whom were women and children—36,000 and counting.(2) Horrible, to be sure, and in the opinion of many nations of the world, a clear case of genocide. But what especially caught my attention were the instances of sadism visited upon the Palestinians by the IDF, which had left Hillel’s admonition behind, in the dust, if indeed it had ever thought about it. How could Jews, who had suffered such treatment at the hands of the Nazis, repeat that very behavior? We can be sure that the many of the grandparents, or great-grandparents, of these Israeli soldiers perished in the Holocaust, so what were these soldiers thinking?

Here are some of the data regarding this sadism that I managed to fish off the Internet:

-The existence of a concentration camp in Israel, where Palestinians are made to lie on cots with hoods over their heads for fifteen hours. They are also so tightly shackled—wrists and ankles, for weeks on end—that amputations of limbs are often necessary.(3)

-Brutality of Israeli settlers and the IDF towards the Palestinians. David Shulman, who is a peace activist and Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is intimately acquainted with what is going on here. He reports that marauding gangs of heavily armed settlers—armed by the Israeli government, in fact—have been destroying Palestinian villages, including sheep, goats, food supplies, water tanks, wind turbines, and sometimes, the villagers themselves. The settlers, he writes, are fanatical/messianic Zionists, but it is more than that: “we who have seen these people in action…can confirm that many of them are driven by sheer sadistic pleasure.”(4)

-The Israeli massacre in Rafah on 26 May 2024, and in central Gaza on June 3(5)

-I also came across a report of the IDF torturing the Palestinians, then putting videos of this on Israeli TV; Israelis watched the videos and sat there laughing. Another video shows members of the IDF laughing at Palestinians who have no food or water. A popular IDF T-shirt shows a pregnant Palestinian woman within the crosshairs of a rifle, with the caption: “Two for One”. Meanwhile, the IDF has bombed hospitals, refugee centers, food delivery vehicles, and has done everything it could to prevent relief supplies from entering Gaza.

-Finally, it should be noted that all of these activities are not just the work of Benjamin Netanyahu: most Israelis support the war on Gaza. It is noteworthy that Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history (more than sixteen years), and that over a million Israelis voted for him in the last election (2022).(6)

So we need to ask: What is the motive behind all of this (which I take to be partly, or even largely, unconscious)? What is it trying to demonstrate, and to whom? This sadism is surely superfluous to defeating Hamas, so why torture the Palestinian people? It seems completely baffling. Is it?

Let me offer two possible explanations for this, the first associated with the Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1870-1937), the second with the American anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974). Let’s start with Adler.(7)

Adler was the man who coined the term “inferiority complex,” and his theory of why human beings were so destructive is rooted in that concept. From a very early age, he claimed, human beings harbored deep feelings of inferiority and insecurity. To compensate for this, they went 180 degrees in the opposite direction, i.e., they adopted a posture of superiority. Desperate for security, and for affection, they are thus caught in a state of permanent aggression, a “will to power.” This, he went on to say, is “the guiding force which directs all human activities.” The drive is to prove, to demonstrate, that one is better than others.

Now back to the sadism of the Israelis. Jews have been regarded as inferior beings, untermenschen, throughout their history. “Vermin,” the Nazis called them. A number of historians have argued that the real goal, for the Germans, in World War II was not victory over the Allied powers, but the extermination of the Jews. Hitler was so hell-bent on this that in terms of military strategy, he made a number of crucial blunders because his real war was against the Jews. And it was not enough to merely wipe them out: they had to be tortured, brutalized, be the victims of savage medical experiments, and so on. In Adlerian terms, they had to be shown that while the Germans were the superior race, they were the inferior one; and sadistic treatment “surely” makes this clear to all concerned. This, then, so the theory goes, gave meaning and purpose to German lives. In effect, it “proved” to the Germans that they existed. Isn’t it obvious that the Israelis are doing the same thing to the Palestinians, and for the same reason? The real goal of the war on Gaza is not the defeat of Hamas, but the extermination of the Palestinians, and the demonstration of alleged Jewish superiority. In an effort to prevent another Holocaust from happening (evoked by the October 7 massacre at Be’eri), the Israelis are now perpetrating their own holocaust on a largely civilian population, with torture added to the mix, and not incidentally.

What could be more Adlerian than this? General Moshe Ya’alon, the former Israeli army chief of staff, declaring that the “Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.” Or the statement of General Rafael Eitan, also a former army chief of staff, that the Palestinians were “drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” Ugly sentiments, to be sure; one could even call them sick. The problem is that these are sentiments that are apparently shared by many, if not most, Israelis.(8)

(The flip side of the coin, of course, is that the October 7 massacre can be seen as the attempt on the part of Hamas to show the Israelis that the Palestinians, and not the “Chosen People,” were the true superior race, or at least equal to it.)

With Becker, in any case, our explanation goes a bit deeper, although it can be seen to mesh with Adler’s analysis. His magnum opus, The Denial of Death (1973), posits the notion that civilization is a defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. Nonexistence—death—is the ultimate horror to be avoided, and we do this by what he calls heroism, or the “immortality project,” which is designed to transcend death. It is essentially a symbolic belief system, allowing people to feel they are part of some larger cause. This in turn gives them the feeling that their lives have meaning. Larger causes are, of course, many and varied, and include things such as Zionism, the American mythology of the “City upon a Hill,” and so on.(9)

The problem arises when one immortality project/larger cause conflicts with another immortality project. Each side is determined to show that its belief system is superior to the other one, and this, says Becker, is the motor of human conflict, including racism and genocide. Following Adler, we might call this heroism “betterness”; it operates on both the individual and the social level. The fight to the death, to demonstrate superiority, is ultimately the fight to prove that one exists. And for this, within this zero-sum framework, the other side has to non-exist. Killing and torture are not far away. One has to ask if the human race can ever stop doing this.

Becker wanted to take this last question on, and tried to in an essay entitled “The Spectrum of Loneliness.” It may have been the last thing he ever wrote, and in a sense, it is an attempt to get beyond “betterness.” He concludes:

"What kind of quality of perception…can we cultivate, so that men may come together without the smugness and righteousness that drives them today, the rigidity of secure and true believers in the idols of money, nationalism, materialistic science? We know that something immense is needed to shock man out of the pathetic yet deadly heroisms to which he has been accustomed….We might then begin to think of how to give people a secure feeling that their lives count….These are gigantic problems, to be sure, and I am not claiming they are answerable in today’s world. But they seem to me to be the authentic problems of a fully critical and introspective modern consciousness."(10)

Will human beings ever be able to feel secure without the crutch of betterness? The consciousness of which Becker speaks is obviously very rare, given the frenzy of the modern world; but it is one without which there is very little possibility of freeing ourselves from sadism or any of the other grim behaviors that are currently destroying our lives. One can only hope.

©Morris Berman, 2024 Notes 1.“Hamas Massacre: Documented War Crimes,” at hamas-massacre.net. 2. Palestinian death toll in Gaza tops 36,000: health authorities-Xinhua (news.cn) 3. https://www.theguardian.com/world/article/2024/may/23/whistleblowers-allege-widespread-abuses-at-israeli-detention-camp-sde-teiman; Sde Teiman: Israel phasing out use of desert detention camp after CNN investigation detailing abuses | CNN; Sde Teiman: Israeli whistleblowers detail abuse of Palestinians in shadowy detention center | CNN. See also these two videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_2RGyUCYaU and CNN exclusive: Israeli whistleblowers detail abuse of Palestinians in Sde Teiman prison - YouTube. 4. Israeli Settlers Are Terrorizing Palestinians In Record Numbers (youtube.com); David Shulman, “Israel: The Way Out,” New York Review of Books, 9 May 2024, pp. 10 and 12. 5.https://x.com/OwenJones84/status/1792180925201109153 and 'No longer justifiable': Israel faces international condemnation for strike in Rafah | The Times of Israel; Israeli forces launch new ground and air assault on central Gaza, killing at least 15 Palestinians | CNN 6. Most Israelis dislike Netanyahu, but support the war in Gaza – an Israeli scholar explains what’s driving public opinion (theconversation.com); Shulman, “Israel: The Way Out,” p. 10. 7.The following is taken from my portrait of Adler in my book Healing (Independent publication, 2023), pp. 6-13. 8.Both Ya’alon and Eitan are quoted in my book Dark Ages America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 197-98. Eitan was implicated in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982. 9.On this and the following see Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), and Wikipedia, “The Denial of Death.” The frenzy for meaning was studied extensively by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951). 10.Ernest Becker, “The Spectrum of Loneliness,” Humanitas, 10 (1974), pp. 237-46.


Blogger comrade simba said...

"Will human beings ever be able to feel secure without the crutch of betterness?"
As a Wafer, I operate on a level akin to butterflies don't care what the caterpillars do.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Hmm...this sounds like "betterness"!


9:25 PM  
Blogger Budget Pundit said...

Re: 'The Origins of Sadism', thank you for this. This essay is quite distressing as it seems very likely to be correct, and as both Becker and yourself ask, if so, is this really a soluble problem? I don't like to veer into misanthropic thinking, always somehow convinced humanity is not by nature irredeemable. While I still believe that, I'm beginning to suspect that without the ability of small/"Dunbar number" bands of humans with their own stories to live without resource contention with others (with different stories), that these innate/latent sadistic tendencies will eventually do us all in. The world simply ain't big enough any more, and the result is endless conflict and horrific abuse.

This is the road to Hiroshima, with no off-ramp.

6:16 AM  
Anonymous Geo said...

Mexico’s elite struggles to comprehend left’s landslide election win

Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email licensing@ft.com to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour.

"The day after Mexico’s leftwing ruling party Morena won a landslide victory in presidential, congressional and state elections, one executive stayed in bed all afternoon eating ice cream to try to cope.

A wealthy woman in Mexico City told friends it was time to “move to the house in Houston”, while another business leader said his WhatsApp chats were marked by a mood of “collective suicide”."

Ya love to see it!

9:06 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Depends on how one defines 'left'. AMLO was an FDR figure, nada mas. Like FDR, he had a lot of social programs, and he caused some distribution of wealth. And the Mexican elite, like the American one, went hysterical over what was ultimately not socialism at all. AMLO never threatened capitalism any more than FDR did, and neither will Claudia. The promise of a "great transformation" was essentially rhetoric, altho the country is surely better off under Morena than it has been under PAN or PRI. And AMLO lives a modest life; he never robbed the state for personal gain, as has every president since Miguel Alman (1946-52). But w/the US towering over Mexico, no Mexican president can seriously break w/capitalism. To wit, under AMLO Mexico became America's #1 trading partner, replacing China as America's major market. And so on.


For some glimmer of hope, check out "The Crisis of Our Time."


10:06 AM  
Blogger Jack Lattemann said...

A worthwhile Wafer weekend read: Matt Stoller writes about the economic termites rotting the U.S. economy. Giving a half dozen contemporary examples, Stoller notes that these creatures of financialized capitalism act as “tollbooths” in nearly every crevice of economic activity. These termites are also hardy, using all kinds of tactics to prevent new entrant “start-ups” from scaling up to threaten near-monopoly positions. This is sophisticated, short-term focused hustling at its finest. As had often been noted on this blog, a fine layer of grift and corruption covers the everyday of contemporary America:


2:10 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

ps: Geo: I've been in Mexico nearly 18 yrs now, and have noticed that altho things have gotten slightly better (esp. in the last 6 yrs), the country remains fundamentally the same. The explanation for this was recently provided by a Mexican reporter for the Wash Post (he's bilingual, can write in English), Eduardo Porter. It's simple, says Porter: all of Mexico's presidents, regardless of political party, come from the elite class, and this includes AMLO and Claudia. As in the case of FDR, the last thing they are going to do is fundamentally alter the country's socioeconomic relations (and Mexico has the worst distribution of wealth in all of Latin America)--i.e., betray their own class. All of this hysteria on the part of wealthy Mexicans (or in the 1930s, wealthy Americans), is thus absurd. I do think poor Mexicans, unlike poor Americans, know they are getting screwed, but voting for Morena is the best they can do under the circumstances. Hence, Mexico will just limp along, slowly getting a bit better over time (one hopes).

In the US, the poor don't realize that they are getting screwed, because Americans are not v. bright. Studies show, repeatedly, that the most patriotic Americans, the most pro-capitalist, are the poor. Opponents of capitalism in America number less than 1% of the population, a pop. that can correctly be characterized as clueless buffoons. These buffoons not only put handjobbing Lauren Boebert in office (or mental patients like MT Greene); they also support America's wars, its imperial adventures, its genocides, and so on. Karma will punish them, but as they are too stupid to understand that they've done anything wrong, 'punishment' doesn't quite apply here.

As for the American collapse: my favorite scenario is not fascism under Trumpi. I expect him to win in Nov., but my favorite scenario is that Schmiden wins, and then a month later dies in office. Which means that Schmamala--a bona fide dope--becomes president! Now that, I'd like to see!


4:08 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Sorry, I don't post Anons.


9:35 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


4 Israelis rescued; 200+ Palestinians (mostly women and children) murdered as a result. Joy in Israel: the Pals are regarded as roaches, completely expendable. Only Jewish lives count.



What a country.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Derek Forster said...

MB & Budget: Thanks MB, u r again fulfilling what Becker calls the task of historical psychology: “to teach people when their social world is crushing their spirit.” Becker talks more about sadism in Birth & Death of Meaning (Free Press, 1971) than in Denial of Death. My copy of the former is waterlogged/unreadable but I copied this on a notecard: “The child has no other coin by which to establish himself as a loved object; he doesn’t understand big words, long sentences, monologues on the nature of reality. He understands only love, support, and body-care as demonstrations of love and support. The child is forced to affirm the priority of the body over the shadowy world of symbols: hence he is a natural sadist. He loves to urinate and defecate on things, even to the displeasure of the parents. He is showing the sadist’s power of affirming priority of the physical world over the symbol world of the adults.”(BDoM, p.51) Becker also calls it anal-sadism: referring to Fromm and/or Jung’s famous dream of a huge turd falling from the sky and crushing a church.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I don't buy it (child sadism). Sounds like Leonard Hofstader's mother!


10:58 AM  
Anonymous Da joker said...

Train derailments seem as common as shootings now in Amerikkka. This latest 1 happened in Logan County, Ohio. The very SAME state of that other derailment, where toxic shit was spilled & ppl had to evacuate


All this business about Trump's trial & whatnot is 2 me a distraction from Amerikkka's decline

4:47 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

An excellent example of The Elite Are Trash:


Described as a 'socialite', this wealthy piece of trash did everything she cd to escape being sentenced, a game-playing that lasted 4 yrs. 15 yrs is hardly punishment enuf for killing the 2 kids. She never even apologized to their parents. I wd recommend being baked in a casserole dish.


6:08 PM  
Blogger Liv said...

Dear Wafers and Dr. Berman,
I am sending you a link to my Chapter from my newly published travel memoir which made me move out of the US in 2018, thanks to you Dr. Berman. It was the best decision I have ever made and it was worth it.
Here is the link to the 3rd Chapter which is about you and how I made the decision:
The name of the book is BEYOND A BROKEN DREAM / What happens when the American dream loses its luster? A Travel Memoir About Finding a True Happiness Beyond Material Wealth. If any of you are curious, Chapter 3 is special for me.
Here is the book link: https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Broken-Dream-Story-Real-Life-ebook/dp/B0D4FKZWLT/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1ZMZFMHA2AY62&dib=eyJ2IjoiMSJ9.Ra3na5LlFQew3bSQZB6pPg.C1_0TdqCtJOWwW8MhG_-YX0RuGxCEJU3Gg3M-YSSR-A&dib_tag=se&keywords=liv+mocanu&qid=1718104668&sprefix=%2Caps%2C244&sr=8-1

1:39 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Hi Liv-

You're too kind, really. In any case, I just posted a review on Amazon, indicating that the US was full of hot prunes, and that anyone reading your book should follow your example and hit the road. I refrained from adding that the population consists of buffoons.


3:37 PM  
Anonymous Flyingspagettimonstr said...

UnitedHealth was the target of a recent cyber attack in which patient data was stolen. Senators accused the CEO of negligence, & this whole thing is an ongoing saga.


This report says their profits were “dented profits by as much as $1.6 billion, including paying a $22 million ransom to the hackers”


It's not as if these insurance firms will go bankrupt if some hackers break in & take a few million bucks;) The Amerikkkan “health” care system is a giant sham.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

‘Unprecedented scale’ of violations against children in Gaza, West Bank and Israel, UN report says | Israel-Gaza war | The Guardian

Student editors of Columbia Law Review resist attempt at censorship by Board members | BRICUP

Note that the same crap is going on at Harvard. This is a litany of murderers and genocidal scumbags, and academic crooks who engage in censorship and coverup. How do these people live w/themselves?


8:39 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Check out the name of the victim.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

I was under the impression that the Azov brigade consisted of neo-Nazis. If so, then the US supplying it w/weapons is an impressive move on our part.


11:43 PM  
Anonymous Leandra said...

Hi Wafers,

I wrote on this blog a few years ago when I was just starting out in a grad program in the US. Since then, I have become a nervous mess. Have you felt that going out of the US made you less neurotic and more at peace with yourself? I should be finishing soon and most of the good jobs in my field are in the US. But there is something really important missing... On the other hand, my country and family are very poor. But I should be making important decisions soon. Of course you don't have all the information about my situation to know what to do, but guess I'm just looking for advice from people on this blog who might have had a similar dilemma. Maybe some foreigners who are Wafers?


7:26 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I hope the Wafers will pitch in and help you. Scroll back and check out the book by Liv, about leaving America. My own bks, "Healing" and "The Crisis of Our Time," might also help. Just be advised that as time goes on, things are going to get a lot worse in the US, and I mean a lot.


Why did I need to know this? This is what the American press regards as news:


Personally, I regard Oprah as a stomach virus, and the US as the stomach. She is the paradigm douche baguette.


7:57 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Sorry, cdn't run it. Just giving your opinion is not how this blog works. We are interested in evidence. If you want to use Fromm as your source, for example, pls provide a link or reliable reference. Thanks.


9:01 PM  
Anonymous David said...


Here, Bill Maher argues we should stand with Israel for a bunch of bullshit reasons, one of which is that "they look like us" (and by us, he means white people). The guy's a racist scumbag. To make matters worse, the woman hosting this show was promptly fired by her former employer for criticizing Israel. I wonder if AIPAC paid her employer to get rid of her.

7:28 AM  
Anonymous Not so french said...

A "Chinese Jew" fighting for the Land of his ancestors.
This is the era of absurdity and bullshit.

On the subject of sadisme, from personal experience, I believe there is some link between sadisme and bureacracy. Everytime I have some paperwork to do I findnthat most of the people that I have to go through exhibit sadistic tendencies. Also, the functionaries of the USSR, the bureaucratic monolith, were not that easy going people. My hypothesis is that this sadistic behoavior is an adaptation to a dehumanised and mechanical world.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Except that sadism existed prior to capitalism or industrial society.


He is pretty disgusting. Glenn Greenwald has a clip discussing how Maher was raised in a Jewish household, heard pro-Israeli propaganda from age 2, and then just reproduces it as an adult w/no self-awareness or transparency. All the while claiming to be searching for the truth. A truly screwed up individual.


9:58 AM  
Blogger Christian Schulzke said...

I was under the impression that the Azov brigade consisted of neo-Nazis.

It is. As someone on the far right, I have been listening to them for years, long before the war in Ukraine started. It has been highly amusing for me to listen to the media in the US, and Britain, claim it's all a myth, even though they routinely will ask its members to remove Nazi insignia while filming an interview. Even so, they still paint their vehicles with Swastikas and Nordic runes associated with the far right.

As a side note, this war has caused a major split in the Alt Right/Dissident Right, whatever we are calling ourselves these days. The pro-Ukraine side wants to side with Azov, Right Sector, Slobo-14, etc etc, and the pro-Russian side sees Putin as taking on ZOG.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Good info, but where is your proof? This blog is interested in evidence, not mere opinions (I almost deleted your post). A link or two might have helped. Myself, I can't remember where I read abt the Nazi connection, but I do remember rdg it in several places. In any case, the historical connection between the Ukraine and antisemitism is quite well established. Pogroms, collaboration w/the Nazis, etc. etc. A proud heritage.


5:01 PM  
Blogger Liv said...

Dear Dr. Berman,
I want to express my gratitude for your wonderful and true review of America on Amazon for my book. It truly made my day. Your sense of humor is impeccable and I found myself laughing out loud while reading it. My intention in writing the book about the Broken Dream was to inspire others, and your words have reassured me that it is timely. You mentioned that life in America will continue to get much worse - could you please elaborate on that? Many Americans believe that Trump will save America, so how much worse can it actually get?
Leandra, you aren't neurotic but deeply human with a soul who actually can think. America is everything but definitely not humane. Get out till is time. I was in the same boat left 6 years ago and I am not looking back. My only regret, I should leave sooner.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Let's hope Leandra manages to hit the road. Yr welcome on the Amazon review. As for things getting worse: Where to begin? Do you have several hrs? But I'm writing a novel backwards, starting w/the conclusion; wh/cd also be a description of the end of America:

1.He was degraded
2.Then he was debased
3.Then they came and took him away in a little wagon
The End

(Also check out "The Crisis of Our Time")


8:30 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

ps: Every morning I have coffee at a cafe down the street from where I live in Mexico City. There are a bunch of us, and we sit on the benches outside. They were all there when I got there this morning, and one of them asked me how I was doing. "Soy feliz," I told him, "como un puerco en caca. Has visto los puercos en caca? Son muy felices!"
Now one of the gang is going to have a T-shirt made for me which says PUERCO EN CACA. I will wear it proudly.

Honestly, being out of the US is absolutely fabulous!

8:42 PM  

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