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'Less Than Human': The Psychology Of Cruelty

During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals. In Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith argues that it's important to define and describe dehumanization, because it's what opens the door for cruelty and genocide.

"We all know, despite what we see in the movies," Smith tells NPR's Neal Conan, "that it's very difficult, psychologically, to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to inflict atrocities on them." So, when it does happen, it can be helpful to understand what it is that allows human beings "to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators."

Rolling Stone recently published photos online of American troops posing with dead Afghans, connected to ongoing court-martial cases of soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. In addition to posing with the corpses, "these soldiers — called the 'kill team' — also took body parts as trophies," Smith alleges, "which is very often a phenomenon that accompanies the form of dehumanization in which the enemy is seen as game."

Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
By David Livingstone Smith
Hardcover, 336 pages
St. Martin's Press
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

But this is just the latest iteration in a pattern that has unfolded time and again over the course of history. In ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature, Smith found repeated references to enemies as subhuman creatures. But it's not as simple as a comparison. "When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures," says Smith. Only then can the process "liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community."

When the Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen, or subhumans, they didn't mean it metaphorically, says Smith. "They didn't mean they were like subhumans. They meant they were literally subhuman."

Human beings have long conceived of the universe as a hierarchy of value, says Smith, with God at the top and inert matter at the bottom, and everything else in between. That model of the universe "doesn't make scientific sense," says Smith, but "nonetheless, for some reason, we continue to conceive of the universe in that fashion, and we relegate nonhuman creatures to a lower position" on the scale.

Then, within the human category, there has historically been a hierarchy. In the 18th century, white Europeans — the architects of the theory — "modestly placed themselves at the very pinnacle." The lower edges of the category merged with the apes, according to their thinking.

So "sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans were denizens of the bottom of the human category," when they were even granted human status. Mostly, they were seen as "soulless animals." And that dramatic dehumanization made it possible for great atrocities to take place.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Looking back on the atrocities he committed against the Chinese in Nanjing, a Japanese war veteran said: If I'd thought of them as human beings, I couldn't have done it. But I thought of them as animals, or below human beings.

Sadly, history is full of such examples. During the Holocaust, Nazis called Jews rats. Hutus in Rwanda described Tutsis as cockroaches. And slave owners, including some of our Founding Fathers, compared slaves to animals.

In his new book "Less Than Human," David Livingston Smith argues that it's important to define and describe dehumanization, the process that allows us to overcome our inhibitions, and opens the door for cruelty and genocide.

Have you ever given into the impulse to call someone else a rat or a pig or a monkey? Our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Livingston Smith joins us now from a studio in Portland, Maine. He's a professor of philosophy at the University of New England.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor DAVID LIVINGSTON SMITH (Philosophy, University of New England): Oh, very nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And just today, the Pentagon apologized again after new pictures were published of what appear to be U.S. Army soldiers posing with corpses of Afghan civilians. And they are - those corpses posed, sometimes, as trophies. When we hear reports of cruelty like that, the first question we ask is: How could this possibly happen? How can anybody do that?

Prof. SMITH: Yes, well, that's the question, isn't it? And the reason we ask that question is because we all know, despite what we see in the movies, that it's very difficult, psychologically, to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to inflict atrocities on them - very difficult, that is, for people who are somewhere near the normal.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. SMITH: So when things like that happen, we have to understand what it is that allows human beings to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators.

CONAN: And game animals - in this particular case, there was talk of hunting.

Prof. SMITH: There was talk of hunting. And these soldiers, called the kill team, also took body parts as trophies, which is very much - very often a phenomenon that accompanies the form of dehumanization in which the enemy is seen as game.

CONAN: And we don't want to put - these are terrible things, no matter where or when they happen. But these are not unique to American soldiers or unique to Afghanistan.

Prof. SMITH: No. I mean, to say that would be to dehumanize American soldiers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SMITH: And the - and with regard the Afghan war is something unusual, but it's not. This is a pattern which has unfolded again and again, throughout human history.

CONAN: And you trace it back as far as humans have been able to leave records and write words.

Prof. SMITH: That's right. We find in the ancient Chinese literature, and ancient Egyptian literature, and ancient Mesopotamian literature, characterizations of enemies as subhuman creatures.

CONAN: So what is it about this comparison to subhuman creatures that carries with it the permission to then exterminate them?

Prof. SMITH: Well, there are two factors. First, I think it's very, very important to emphasize it's not a comparison. That is, when people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures. It's only because they conceive of them as subhuman creatures that this process can liberate aggression, and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community. What makes...

CONAN: I was just going to ask you to give us an example of what you mean there.

Prof. SMITH: Well, when the Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen - as subhumans - they didn't mean this metaphorically; they didn't mean they were like subhumans. They meant they were, literally, subhuman.

CONAN: In the way that we - and again, the metaphor is inept - but in the way that - something other than human, like a vampire or a robot or a zombie?

Prof. SMITH: Well, yes. But the sub here is important as well. So a - something like a robot is nonhuman, but we wouldn't really call it subhuman because we don't place robots on a hierarchy of living things. This is the other component here. From time immemorial, human beings have conceived of the universe as a hierarchy of value - with God at the top, and inert matter at the bottom, and everything else arranged in between in what was called the scala naturae, the ladder of nature, or the great chain of being. And the - this gives us a measure of greater or lesser.

Now, this model of the universe doesn't make scientific sense. Post-Darwin, we know nature isn't a hierarchy. Nature is a ramifying bush. Nonetheless, something - for some reason, we continue to conceive of the universe in that fashion, and we relegate nonhuman creatures to a lower position, on the great chain of being, than ourselves. So that's the less-than-human.

CONAN: And then we can get in - within categories. There is a large human category, but some humans are better than others?

Prof. SMITH: Oh, yes. And this was something which was popular in the 18th century. Eighteen-century race theory saw, within the human category, a hierarchy of races. And of course, the architects of this theory were white Europeans, so they modestly placed themselves at the very pinnacle of the human category. The lower edges of the human category merged into the apes, according to this way of looking at things.

So sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans were denizens of the bottom of the human category - when they were granted human status. But often, they were not even granted human status. They were seen as soulless animals.

CONAN: As soulless animals. And you do write that the Holocaust is almost too easy an example, because you can say it's uniquely horrible. But nevertheless, it provides so many exemplars here.

Prof. SMITH: Well, it's extremely well-documented. That's one of the very, very useful things about the Nazi episode. So what then - how - the Nazi characterizations of Jews, of Poles, of Russians, of gypsies - gives us a great deal of detail into the dehumanizing mindset, detail which is confirmed by other examples, but which we can't find such rich exemplars of.

CONAN: Then there is the importance of metaphor, and you write about this. Sometimes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are presented as hunting expeditions: "As British Close in on Basra, Iraqis Scurry Away," "Terror Hunt Snares 25," "Net Closes Around bin Laden," "With Enemy Bases as Animal Nests, Pakistanis Give Up on Lair of Osama."

"Terror Nest in Fallujah is Attacked, from Which the Prey Must be Driven Out." "Why Bin Laden is So Difficult to Smoke Out." "America's New Dilemma is How to Smoke Bin Laden Out From Caves." "We Need to Trap the Animal." "Trap May Net Taliban Chief." "FBI Terror Sting Nets Mosque Leaders and Lock it in a Cage." "Even Locked in a Cage, Saddam Poses Serious Danger."

I saw one on the wires today about an arrest in Pakistan being presented as an important scalp.

Prof. SMITH: Yeah.

CONAN: And yet some of those just seem to be - I mean, Saddam, even in a cage, Saddam poses danger. Saddam was, literally, in a cage. That's not even a metaphor.

Prof. SMITH: No. But in the context - well, I don't think much of that is metaphor, actually, again. But in the context of the rhetoric around the wars, and around the so-called War on Terror, the image of Saddam in a - well, I mean, we're not saying Saddam is in prison. We're not saying Saddam, in these cases, is locked away in a cage. A cage has specifically dehumanizing implications. And if you put that in the larger context of the other - as represented in the other headlines that you read, you could appreciate what that conveys.

CONAN: That pattern, if you will.

Prof. SMITH: Yes.

CONAN: We're talking with David Livingstone Smith, author of "Less Than Human -Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others." And we're talking about the importance of metaphors, and wonder if you have ever fallen prey to the temptation to describe others as snakes or rats or demons; 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Nancy, and Nancy's with us from North Missouri.

NANCY (Caller): Yes. My sister is - I have two sisters in a nursing home, and I think the administrators of nursing homes typically are rats. They're furtive, and they lie, and they cheat. And they turn a blind eye to neglect and abuse that's in the nursing home.

CONAN: So you have used that metaphor before this telephone call?

NANCY: Yes.

CONAN: And you think of them that way.

NANCY: I sure do.

CONAN: And is that just to express your hostility or - I'm sure you've not taken vengeance on them.

NANCY: I think it's a way - I hope - of calling people's attention to the huge nursing home lobbies and the administrators who are making huge, huge salaries. And the people who work under them are getting almost nothing.

CONAN: So this is a way of...

NANCY: The ratty...

CONAN: ...drawing attention to the enormity of their...

NANCY: Yeah, it's like a rat. They're like rat packs.

CONAN: OK.

NANCY: The nursing home administrators and all their powerful lobbies and...

CONAN: Does that rise to the level of dehumanization, David Livingstone?

Prof. SMITH: No, and this really gives us an opportunity to make this very important distinction. Nancy said they're like rats. So once you call some rats, it's a way to disparage them and obviously, she feels that they deserve disparaging. But that's different from actually believing they are subhuman creatures. I assume Nancy wouldn't be inclined to feed them rat poison.

CONAN: That - I think we can safely say she would not.

Prof. SMITH: Yes, but if this were a genuine example of dehumanization, she might well. That is, she would really see these individuals as, although appearing to be human, as outwardly human, as inwardly subhuman.

CONAN: And there is another level of depersonalization you write about, which is not dehumanization. For example, a surgeon operating on a body does not necessarily think of that person in that moment, as he's carving into them, as human.

Prof. SMITH: That's right. And he'd better not because if he does, his all-too-human concerns and inhibitions are going to get in the way. He'd better see this as a flesh and blood machine that needs repairing. But that's different from dehumanization.

CONAN: We're talking about dehumanization with David Livingstone Smith and his book "Less Than Human," and why dehumanization can lead to genocide. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about what makes ordinary people commit terrible acts of mass violence. Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity, writes David Livingstone Smith in "Less Than Human." You can read more about how the Nazis' thinking paved the way for the atrocities of the Holocaust in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org, Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The author's with us. We'd like to hear about your experiences. Have you ever given in to the impulse to call someone else a rat or a pig or a monkey; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to Dave, and Dave's calling from Cleveland.

DAVE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead.

DAVE: Yes, hi. Although I haven't personally experienced experienced this, my father was - who passed away a few years ago - was on the Bataan March in World War II. And even until the end of his life, he never had any kind thing to say about the Japanese people. And the terms he used, I wouldn't want to repeat on the radio. But you know, he referred to them as being subhuman, animals, barbarous - and you know, a lot of other, worse names than that.

CONAN: This after the surrender of U.S. forces on that peninsula in the Philippines in 1942. And they were marched at bayonet point for, I think, about 50, 60 miles - with very little in the way of food or water - to a prison camp. And many of them died along the way. And that - David Livingstone Smith, there's an element of reciprocity there, too.

Prof. SMITH: Yes. That was a horrible event, and I would be most surprised if this gentleman didn't have such views of his - of the people who inflicted such pain on himself and his comrades. During World War II, though, it was quite common for Americans to dehumanize the Japanese - in fact, before World War II -and for Japanese to dehumanize Americans as well. Of course, that's the other side of the Bataan Death March. The Japanese regarded us as subhuman creatures.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email - oh, let's see if we get another call. Let's go next to Jane(ph), and Jane's with us from Marin in California.

JANE (CALLER): Oh, thank you for taking my call. I have two questions and a comment, if I may. My first question is: Do we still - what do we tell our military when they have to go out, to shoot to kill, number one? Do we use dehumanizing words? That's my first question. And my second question is: Does this apply to our death penalty, which noother European country has anymore. When they find someone guilty and they call - in the courtroom, they say only an animal would behave like that. And then I have - my comment is: I saw the film from Theresianstadt, the German concentration camp, where they actually had rats with Jewish, caricature faces coming out of sewers.

CONAN: Hmm.

JANE: If you comment on that, I'll take it off - over the radio.

CONAN: Thank you, Jane.

JANE: Thank you.

Prof. SMITH: Well, yes. Let's see. In terms of what we tell our soldiers, I don't know. You would have to speak to people involved in military training. But this is one of the very, very difficult tasks confronting service personnel who are going into combat. The task - the problem is that it is very hard to kill other human beings. And this is the task that often, combatants have, to kill other human beings. We can distance ourselves from the horror of this, partially through using weapons that operate at long range - so we're not confronted, really, with what we're doing. But also, what's required is a certain amount of psychological distancing, and dehumanization is a way of gaining that sort of psychological distance. It's a way of overcoming the inhibitions against an act which can be deeply traumatic. We don't appreciate how traumatic it is to kill.

And yes, the caricaturizations of criminals as subhuman animals, it's the same sort of thing. I mean, that touches a very deep place in us, and it makes us much more ready to extract vengeance on them.

CONAN: To that first point, an email from Johnson in Fort Meyers, Florida: I'm a veteran of the Iraq War. Dehumanizing is still very prevalent in the U.S. Army today. Throughout our training, we always refer to the enemy as targets or tangos, while in Iraq we referred to the insurgents as hajis - or bad guys. Much easier to fire without hesitation when you are simply aiming at a target or a haji than when you are aiming at a person.

Prof. SMITH: Hmm. Yes.

CONAN: Target doesn't seem like a vile word, in and of itself, though.

Prof. SMITH: No, not in and of itself. But if you're thinking of you shooting at a living thing that's a target, you're coming close. You see, that's one-half of the dehumanization formula. Half of it is eliminating the humanity of that which you are wanting to kill or harm or treat cruelly. Full-blooded dehumanization goes a bit further. It not only eliminates the humanity but caricaturizes the other as a creature that deserves to be killed because it's dangerous, because it will contaminate you - or because it's game that's fun to kill, for sport.

CONAN: But that first part, when you get to comparisons with vermin who are, of course, dangerous, or mutating like a virus, something like that.

Prof. SMITH: Yeah. And that's characteristic of genocide.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jerry(ph), Jerry with us from Cookeville in Tennessee.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I've called politicians skunks before. Like I told your screener, at least with a skunk you know what you're going to get. But I remember a book I read - it's been, oh, quite a few years ago. It was called "From Darwin To Hitler," by Richard Weikart - in how he documented the proliferation of eugenics organizations in Germany around 1900. And they asserted that their scientific imprimatur was by claiming harmony with all the laws of evolution...

CONAN: Yeah, this is so-called social Dawinism - and of course, scientific nonsense.

JERRY: And anyway, it seemed like Darwinism provided the lingo for scientific racism on the onset of the 20th century but - and it talked about the eugenicist...

CONAN: It's interesting. I just wanted to not let that point go away, David Livingstone Smith, 'cause you find any number of argots - or sets of terminology -that have been adapted for this use, for dehumanization, that may not have been intended that way. Certainly, Darwin was not.

Prof. SMITH: Uh-huh. That's quite right, yes. Scientific racism goes back considerably further. In fact, Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, is one of the architects of scientific racism. Darwin certainly wasn't, but as you say, Neal, the Darwinian framework, and the Darwinian language, was exploited by those who did argue for scientific racism - including, oddly enough, some American, biblical fundamentalists who denied that black people were evolved from human ancestors.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we go next to - this is Testa(ph), and Testa's with us from Dallas.

TESTA (Caller): Yes, good day. And my initial question was, does that kind of play off what just came by? Does the concept of dehumanizing people evolve from racism, or does racism fuel that thought? And just to go a little further, well, we're talking about military action. How about the Middle Passage in slavery, where that was basically economically driven and, you know, the whole concept of dehumanizing this product so you could use it without, you know, the consequences of affecting the conscience of these people...

CONAN: Now, slavery is one of the principle examples that David Livingstone Smith uses in his book - not just the slavery of the trans-Atlantic trade but indeed, throughout history. But focusing - I guess the documentation's a lot better on more recent years.

Prof. SMITH: Yes, that's right. It's a very good question. I think race - the notion of race is an extremely important one in this connection. Before dehumanizing a group of people, we set them apart as a race or an ethno-race; that is, a - sort of a variative people who are supposedly, fundamentally different from us, whoever "us" is. So the idea of race is, I think, quite regularly a prelude to dehumanization.

You have to realize that the notion of race, the folk notion of race, is very much an artificial construction. And if we look across history, various groups of people were regarded as races in the past, who are not regarded as races now. So you take a group of people that you wish to harm or exploit; you attribute to them a fundamental difference; you call them a race; and then the next step is to attribute to them a subhuman essence. They're not...

CONAN: Yet, just listening - and Tesfa(ph), I'm sorry, I got your name wrong originally; thank you very much for the call. But you're describing a conscious process of people you wish to exploit.

Prof. SMITH: No. This happens, partially, spontaneously and unconsciously. We have this deep tendency to do this - it's very, very hard not to - and partially at the behest of governments and powerful elites who recognize that this tendency of human beings can be exploited. A great deal of propaganda is built around dehumanization. In fact, George Orwell believed that all political propaganda was built around dehumanization.

CONAN: So I want to get back to that in a minute, but there's an email we have from Tony in LaBelle, Florida: As a criminal defense lawyer, I fight constantly to keep my clients - prosecutors rarely refer to a defendant by name, and frequently refer to my clients as animals. It is easier to judge others when it's not a person they are judging, and that's in a narrow, advocate's court.

Prof. SMITH: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. SMITH: You see - now, I don't know how strategic that is, whether - if -whether the attorney sets out to influence others by characterizing the accused as an animal, or whether he or she finds himself or herself doing that. You see, we have a tendency to slip into this way of thinking about others -consciously, sometimes, but more frequently, unconsciously.

CONAN: And interesting how much of a slur it is on animals, who so very rarely -if ever - behave that way.

Prof. SMITH: Yeah, yeah. That's right, yes. But the point is about subhuman animals - first, the idea is that they are subhuman...

CONAN: Sub, right.

Prof. SMITH: ...that is, of less intrinsic value than human beings - is that one doesn't have the same moral responsibilities to them as we have towards other human beings. That's the idea. Of course, whether or not it's true is another matter.

CONAN: We're talking with David Livingstone Smith about his new book, "Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And getting back to your previous point, it is difficult not to do this. In other words, is this a learned behavior? Or is this wired, somehow, into our brains?

Prof. SMITH: I think it's - there are components of both. We tend to - here is what seems to be very deeply embedded in us: the idea of a hierarchy of value. Now, I don't know if that is innate or not, but it's certainly deep. The tendency to essentialize, which I haven't spoken about yet, seems to be innate. That is, we have a basic tendency to think of the world as composed of different kinds of things, and we assume that what makes something a member of a kind is that it possesses an essence. So we do this with biological species - we, you know, we distinguish dogs from cats from parrots from moose.

And when we start asking ourselves, well, what makes something a dog, what makes something a cat, the most tempting way to go - which is false, by the way - is that it's got a species essence. There's some kind of dogness inside of it, or catness inside of it. So we have a thing that looks like a dog and has something deep inside of it that somehow, in some mysterious way, makes it a dog. Now...

CONAN: And even if it has three legs instead of four, it's still a dog.

Prof. SMITH: That's right, because it's got the dog essence. So one might have a deformed dog or, you know, a malformed dog or whatever. This is the kind of thinking we carry forward when we think of human groups, races. We imagine that these groups of people have a distinctive essence. And when we dehumanize, then, we substitute an animal essence for the human essence.

This is - really explains a puzzle, which is how is it possible to think of a being that looks just like a human being, acts just like a human being, talks, you know, is bipedal, has a human-looking face and so on, wears clothes; how is it possible to think of such a creature as, literally, a subhuman creature? Well, the idea is they have a subhuman essence. They may be outwardly human but deep inside, where it counts, they are subhuman, and they deserve to be destroyed.

CONAN: And so this - does this come out of our experience as hunter-gatherers, where it was great competition for scarce resources and the others, over the hill, in the next valley, were always a threat?

Prof. SMITH: We don't know. What we do know is that there's a - the tendency towards ethnocentrism is extremely widespread - all but universal, I would say. And ethnocentrism is the tendency to conceive of one's own group as superior to all other groups. And as a matter of fact, one of the common manifestations of ethnocentrism - that anthropologists have known about for a very, very long time -is that only one's own group is considered human. All the others are subhuman.

CONAN: And then, by extension, we have achieved the triumph of civilization. We've managed to get along, for the most part, with most people, most of the time, in very large cities. That would have been impossible to imagine 10,000 years ago.

Prof. SMITH: Yes. It's a remarkable achievement...

CONAN: And...

Prof. SMITH: ...but it's a fragile achievement.

CONAN: A fragile achievement because of that innate ability to see others as -well, to use another word - the other.

Prof. SMITH: We gerrymander the category of the human in ways that - suits us. So we can extend it to others. We can form an inclusive group. We can recognize that everyone is a member of the greater human community. But we can also exclude populations of people as it suits us, as has happened throughout history.

CONAN: You are a professor of philosophy. This is a gloomy outlook.

Prof. SMITH: Well, it's gloomy if we don't understand it and do something. The fact is that there's hardly any literature on this topic. It's really shocking because scholars talk about dehumanization; journalists talk about humanization - dehumanization. It's a word that's used frequently. But if you go to the scholarly literature, there is very, very, very little.

And it's very important to understand. If dehumanization plays the role that I and others have said it does, we need to understand what it is about human beings that permits us to do this, under what circumstances we do it, and how we can prevent it from occurring if we don't want more Rwandas, and more Auschwitzses, and all the other atrocities that have plagued us since the beginning of civilization.

CONAN: David Livingstone Smith joined us from a studio in Portland, Maine. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. SMITH: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me.

CONAN: You can read an excerpt from the book "Less Than Human" on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Coming up, it's nearly written in stone in education circles, the notion that small class sizes improve learning. The problem, Eva Moskowitz says: That's not true. Stay with us.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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