ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)

The Two Attas?

Dustin Cohen (Toronto, Canada)

Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a system of generalized exchange (Baudrillard, 2002).

 I. Introduction

Why is the death of the suicide bomber so significant for Jean Baudrillard’s argument in The Spirit of Terrorism that “it is all about death, not only about the violent irruption of death in real time – ‘live’ so to speak – but the eruption of a death which is far more than real: a death which is symbolic and sacrificial – that is to say, the absolute, irrevocable event”? (Ibid.:16) To answer this question I turn to the curious personality (and life and death) of Mohammad Atta, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

While Baudrillard writes much about the symbolic nature of suicidal terror and its implications for Western capitalism and globalization, he does not probe more deeply the attackers themselves. Would such an analysis confirm, or deny, his arguments? It has been noted that suicide attackers “will only be properly understood insofar as any comprehensive understanding can be possible, by scrutinizing their spiritual-intellectual world, the ideologies that have moulded them, and the myths they grew up with” (Reuter, 2004:12). Following such an analysis of some of the 9/11 attackers I discuss Baudrillard’s conception of symbolic and general exchange and his indebtedness to George Bataille’s conception of productive activity and (symbolic) expenditure. Agreeing with Baudrillard, I stress that contemporary Western [or more specifically the ‘dominant (or hegemonic) economy and/or system of exchange’] society and global markets operate with virtual reality, information and communication technologies, which are features of a system of generalized exchange and Bataille’s notion of productive activity. I inquire as to why death, and specifically the suicidal deaths on 9/11, disrupt generalized exchange and infuse the system with a symbolic form of exchange that is incapable of an adequate response. Next, I consider Baudrillard’s contentious argument that the suicide attacks are symptomatic of “triumphant globalization battling against itself” (Baudrillard, 2002:11). Lastly, I consider how Baudrillard’s argument confirms biographical facts about Atta and suggest that his ideologies and methods were infused with modern traits and a degree of familiarity with Western technologies.

II. Excess and Symbolic Exchange

Baudrillard and Bataille describe an economy or system of exchange based on expenditure or excess that counters traditional capitalist economics. Not only do the exchanges that they describe counter capitalist economics, but they were utilized by primitive societies prior to capitalist modes of exchange and production. These economies / exchanges operate outside of terms such as ‘utility’, ‘value’ or ‘self preservation’. In his essay “The Notion of Excess”, Bataille distinguishes productive activity from (symbolic) expenditure. Productive activity is “represented by the use of the minimum necessary for the conservation of life and the continuation of individuals’ productive activity in a given society”. (Symbolic) expenditure, on the other hand, is represented by “so called unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, cults… spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activities…which have no end in themselves” (Bataille, 1985a:118). Bataille outlines instances of unconditional expenditure, examples of something beyond utility and utilitarian calculation. These cases of symbolic exchange remind us that primitive forms of exchange were not based on a form of barter but on “the need to destroy and to lose” (Ibid.:121).

Bataille draws on Mauss’ evocation of the Native American potlatch ceremony. Mauss explains that in the legal system of ancient European societies such as the Celts we find a sanctioning of practices such as rivalry, single combat, emulation of extravagant spending, challenges and tournaments (Mauss, 1997:29). The Native American potlatch, which was not alien to German and Scandinavian countries, is a gift giving ceremony where two or more parties offer each other gifts in an increasing fashion as each party strives to outdo the other. Often one party will spend spectacularly, in opposition to any principle of conservation: the goal being to humiliate and defy their rival. Bataille writes that it symbolizes excretion and tells of a certain potlatch where a Tlingit chief murdered a number of his slaves in front of his rival, only to have his rival reciprocate with the murder of a greater number of slaves (Bataille, 1985a:121). 

According to Baudrillard, we find a certain freedom, one that has for the most part disappeared, in forms of (symbolic) expenditure that obviously upsets the reigning capitalist status-quo. This sacrificial (and sovereign) freedom exhibited during the potlatch offers the ability to indulge in a “disgorging, free, continuously identifying with the victim, to vomit his own being just as he has vomited a piece of himself, …in other words, free to throw himself suddenly outside of himself…” (Bataille, 1985b:70). It is no coincidence that Bataille’s metaphor for this (Symbolic) expenditure is the sun, which expends its warmth and light excessively and without demanding anything in return. Baudrillard derives his conception of the “symbolic dimension” and “symbolic violence” of 9/11 from such (Symbolic) forms of expenditure (2002:58, 29). Likewise, he derives the term “general exchange”, which describes our contemporary Western economic system, from Bataille’s notion of productive activity (Ibid.:9).

III. Generalized Exchange: Hegemony, Virtuality and Death

When I think of historically hegemonic nations or cities vying for control of global culture and resources I tend to think of hubris as well. A Hebrew proverb comes to mind that goes: ‘pride goes before a fall’. As well, I recall a curious anti-war song called ‘Pride of Man’, whose lyrics offer a glimpse of the ruins that would smoulder at Ground Zero thirty-four years later:

Can’t you see that flash of fire, Ten times brighter than the day? And behold a mighty city, Broken in the dust again, Oh God the Pride of man broken in the dust again. Turn around, go back down, Back the way you came … Babylon is laid to waste, Egypt buried in her shame. Their mighty men are beaten down, Their kings are fallen in the ways. Oh God, the Pride of man, broken in the dust again … Shout a warning to the nations, That the sword of God is raised, On Babylon that might city Rich in treasure, wide in fame. It shall cause thy tower to fall, And make of thee a pyre of flame … Oh thou who dwell on many waters, rich in treasure wide in fame. Bow unto a God of gold, thy Pride of might shall be thy shame (Camp, 1964).

In the song an explosion rocks a powerful city, one the size and power of ancient Babylon. Under the pressure of their terrorist foes the mighty rulers of the city are ‘shocked and awed’. Then the listener is offered an explanation for the terrorist act: the powerful city was attacked not only for its idolatrous ways, but for its wealth, hegemonic control and expansive sphere of influence. As a result, the tower, or a number of towers depending on how the song is sung, is destroyed. Like Babylon, or Egypt, which put their “faith in fire”, in fire the city’s faith was repaid. Down falls another powerful empire, as the lyrics of the song echo, “broken in the dust again”. In the song, power (power as fire or weapons, power as wealth and power as control over territory), contains the seeds of its own demise. This kind of built in reversibility is something Baudrillard values very highly in his writings (see Baudrillard [1976] 1993; and Coulter, 2004, 2008).
But power, as outlined above, is part of, but not entirely what Baudrillard finds so disturbing about our contemporary form of generalized exchange. Recall the following line from the Old Testament: “Come”, said the people of Babylon, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). What could the reason be that God’s punishment for those who attempted to build such a tower was to confound their speech so that they could no longer understand one another? (Ibid.:11:6). God’s fear that “the people is one, and they have all one language”, is intricately tied to Baudrillard’s critique of our system of generalized exchange.

Our technologies and our markets operate on the principle of complete transferral and conservation. Globalization itself represents a “globality totally soluble in circulation or exchange” (Baudrillard, 2002:58). Our markets and our technologies do not tolerate remainders. Where there is an unaccountable excess of code or funds we find ourselves faced with the infamous Microsoft Windows ‘blue screen of death’ or reading a headline detailing the events leading up to the latest stock market crash. Speech emitted from one’s mouth can be recorded onto an analog cassette tape, digitally recorded onto a compact disc and “ripped” from that compact disc onto one’s computer where it can be transformed into an Mp3 file. Hence, the 1s and 0s that make up the binary of the Mp3 file correspond with the reverberations of my vocal chords that emitted my words in the first place. We are at odds to imagine a situation in our culture of virtuality where something cannot be transferred and formats cannot be exchanged. This is one of the reasons that attempts at copyright legislation pertaining to digital media are extremely difficult to resolve. Nor, as Katherine Hayles has suggested, are our technologies constructed on the logic of presence / absence, but pattern / randomness (Hayles, 1999:25). Everything becomes a transferable pattern. Our hard drives have been constructed so that the information stored on them is not deleted and erased when we empty our “recycling bins” but overwritten and recoverable with the right tools. We find this idea most evident not only in our “virtual reality, and our systems of information and communication”, but in our economic system. With that systems’ “random and virtual form it imposes everywhere – lean production, floating capital, forced mobility and acceleration…” (Baudrillard, 2002:58). Baudrillard argues, rather controversially, that this system contains the seeds of his own demise in its very fragility. The system causes “a general principle of uncertainty to prevail”, one that goes alongside his discussion of the system’s state as “beyond the reality principle” (Ibid.:58-9).

Baudrillard’s criticism of the system is strikingly similar to the biblical story of the tower of Babel. In both cases we find a universal language unifying a community, a language that causes that community to believe they can reach the Oneness of God or the Oneness of the “virtual space of the global…the space of the screen and the network, of imminence and the digital, of a dimensionless space – time” (Ibid.:92). Terrorism, and specifically suicide terrorism for Baudrillard, acts like God’s confounding of the Babylonians’ one language at Babel, and exacerbates the uncertainty of this Oneness to its extreme point of collapse. After all, in our virtual “profusion of exchanges and all products, [and] perpetual flow of money”, where all exchanges can be thought of as equal and without remainder, we have no room, or ability to understand a notion such as symbolic sacrifice (Ibid.89). Baudrillard reminds us that “even God left room for sacrifice” (Ibid.:102). But how, and why, did suicide terrorism which attacked the twin towers in New York translate into total insecurity for the system of generalized exchange?

The fact that the major target on 9/11 was the twin towers of the World Trade Center contains a tremendous amount of importance. For Baudrillard, the twinness of the towers embodies perfect, definitive and universal order (Ibid.:6). He suggests that the towers themselves are symbolic of a system that is no longer competitive and entirely digital and countable (Ibid.:39). The black identical towers stare only at themselves and, like the 1s and 0s of binary, reflect one another. Their symmetry is itself a reminder of the end of asymmetry (Ibid.:42). We find embodiments of a financial (and ideological) power that casts illusions of difference although actually has no room for remainders, asymmetries, excess and sacrifice. As such, in Baudrillard’s universe, the twin towers stood waiting for the precise moment when a singularity that they could not tolerate exposed their weakness and caused them to suicide. The “terroristic situational transfer” emerges out of the total monopolization of thinking and acting (Ibid.:9). This terroristic situational transfer is both revenge against total global circulation and part of the logic of this hegemonic global circulation itself. Baudrillard writes: “By seizing all the cards for itself, it forced the Other to change the rules” restoring an “…irreducible singularity to the heart of a system of generalized exchange” (Ibid.) But do we find this symbolic observation in the seemingly more religious rhetoric of al-Queda?

In a statement recorded for al-Jazeera on December 26, 2001 Osama bin-Laden celebrates the sacrifice of the 9/11 hijackers (bin Laden, 2001 in Lawrence, 2002:145).  One senses the obvious rhetoric of being an underdog against a mighty empire, but less obvious is his recognition that the Western system of general exchange is weak and will not be able to tolerate or totally neutralize an attack where the primary weapon is itself a human life. Not coincidentally, in an interview from 2001 bin-Laden compares America to Hubal, a pagan idol defeated by early Muslim forces. He declares that America is the great Hubal of the age, a haughty and domineering power that despite appearing economically impervious “is soft” (Ibid.:148). “How quickly it fell from the sky, by the grace of God” he declares (Ibid.) The nineteen suicide attackers who “shook America’s throne” did so by striking at its economy, a generalized economy that, following Baudrillard, admits only productive activities (Ibid.:149). Their method of suicidal attack is, thus, highly symbolic. Bin-Laden recites a poem by Yusef Abu Hilala in the 2001 interview: “I testify that these men, as sharp as a sword…/ who smiled at Death when his sword gazed ominously at them / who willingly bared their chests as shields…” (Ibid.:157).

IV. Death and Impossible Exchange

The suicide bomber, irrespective of how much credence we give to his (or her) ideological or religious fanaticism, subverts Western notions of utility and self-preservation (Baudrillard, 2002:57). A larger question concerning whether the suicide attacker is indeed a “singularity” in the Baudrillardian sense should be asked, but in this short discussion based on Baudrillard’s “sovereign hypothesis” we will consider him (or her) to be one. The sovereign hypothesis maintains that terrorism ultimately has no meaning, no objective and cannot be measured by “real” political and historical consequences. In response to this suicidal terror we oscillate, as we have done in the years following 9/11, between feelings of tremendous patriotism and unity and reciprocative shows of force (i.e. Operation Shock and Awe) against our opponents. Here, one might think back to Mauss’ and Bataille’s reminder that the ideal potlatch is one where your gift cannot be returned, a destruction that yields no possible response (Bataille, 1985a:122). Can our system of totally soluble exchange attempt a response without imploding and suiciding? Can we, as the poem cited above claims the 9/11 attackers did, ever hope to understand the act of smiling at death and willingly (or ‘solarly’) offering our own flesh and blood as weapons and shields? Baudrillard claims that our homogenous globalized culture not only produced such a viral singularity, but the singularity opened a small zone of impossible exchange that carried the insecurity of our own cultural ideal of zero-death to an extreme point. According to Baudrillard, Muhammad Atta and the 9/11 bombers succeeded in turning their deaths into an:

…absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death, whose ideal is an ideal of zero deaths. Every zero-death system is a zero-sum game. All the means of deterrence and destruction can do nothing against an enemy who has already turned his death into a counterstrike weapon. ‘What does the American bombing matter? Our men are as eager t odie as the Americans are to live!’ Hence the non-equivalence of the four-thousand deaths inflicted at a stroke on a zero-death system (Reuter, 2004:16).

In the symbolic sphere, we are outbid as their “death can be met only by equal or greater death” (Ibid.:17). As the planes hit the twin towers, albeit only an infinitesimal point in the system, the real gathered into this point and created a void where we witnessed an excess of reality. It is not for nothing that Mohammad Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, wrote to his accomplices: “When the hour of reality approaches, the zero hour, wholeheartedly welcome death…” (Atta, 2001 in Rubin 2002:238).

V. Two Attas? Western Infrastructure and the 9/11 Attacks

In a note reportedly written by Atta for the other suicide attackers to read the night before their deaths we find passages such as:

Calm your soul, make it understand, and convince and push her to do that [the mission]. Increase your mention of God's name. The best mention is reading the Qur'an. All scholars agreed to this. It is enough for us, that [the Qur'an] is the word of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who we are about to meet. Also do not appear to be nervous, be happy with a happy heart, be confidant because you are doing a job that religion accepts and loves. And then there will be a day that you will spend with beautiful angels [hur'aen] in paradise. Oh young Man keep a smiling face. You are on your way to everlasting paradise (Davis, 2003:87).

The above quote does not appear odd or out of the ordinary. We would, it seems, be at odds to find anything confirming Baudrillard’s argument upon reading it. Atta appears to consider himself a martyr and is certainly not concerned with the symbolic nature of his plan for the following day. But there is something out of the ordinary in his preoccupation with death that runs throughout the note in a way that has sounded alarm bells for many Islamic scholars (Reuter, 2004:46). It has been noted that the 9/11 attackers, and Atta in particular, had qualities that were highly irregular and had rarely been seen in the long history of Islamic martyrdom. While Atta’s suicide note bears semblance to historical instances of Islamic martyrdom, it differs in that it normalizes death. It fits, according to Christopher Reuter, with the schema of a “quintessentially modern suicide bomber”, one who has left behind traditional interpretations of his religion and glorifies certain others as in a cut and paste collage. We do not have to agree with George Bush’s post 9/11 rhetoric that “we are not deceived by their [the 9/11 attacker’s] pretences to piety” (Benjamin, 2002: 38). Bush suggested the attackers only claimed to be imbued with the spirit of religion. It would be foolish to argue that the act against America was not an act of “religious devotion”, as Atta and the other perpetrators were indeed pious. They understood the hijackings to be the “performance of a sacrament, one intended to restore to the universe a moral order that had been corrupted…” (Ibid.:40). Yet there appears to be something “quintessentially modern” about it.

Consider the 9/11 hijackers’ lack of ethnic ties to a particular culture or religion. No God can restrain their religious commandments and, as a result, they have overcome the ban on killing themselves. Perhaps they are most modern in this sense, as in "Judaism, Christianity and Islam, power over human life, including the right to take it away, belongs exclusively to God, [but] for these suicide attackers and their defenders – whether they consider God great (following bin-Laden) or dead (following Nietzsche) – it ultimately boils down to a single issue: they take their own lives, and therefore their deaths are in their own hands” (Reuter, 2004:16). This aspect of Atta’s note compliments the actions and ideas outlined in it. We might read 9/11 as a “mixture of the Battle of Karbala and cable television – old myths and new media” (Reuter, 2004:16). Atta was aware of the weaknesses in American security and chose the twin-twin towers as a site to attack. He was familiar with Western technology and the importance the towers had to the generalized economy.

As one studies the events leading up to 9/11 it becomes increasingly clear that it is incorrect (as Reuter also continuously reminds us), to consider Atta and the other eighteen attackers as a mere instance in a lengthy history of Islamic martyrdom. Baudrillard suggests that one difference between Atta and previous terrorists is that “the [newest breed of suicide] terrorists have ceased to commit suicide for no return; they are now bringing their lives to bear in an effective, offensive manner, in the service of an intuitive strategic insight which is quite simply a sense of the immense fragility of the opponent” (Ibid.) Now we might want to scrutinize Atta (or bin-Laden for that matter) and ask: where did these modern tendencies, insights and familiarities with Western technology and the workings of the generalized economy come from?

Mohammad Atta received a Western education and assimilated the ideas and technologies of modernity and globalization into the 9/11 plan. Baudrillard, himself points out that the suicide attackers were unique in that they used the banality of American life as camouflage (Ibid.:19). Consider this in the context of his point that the 9/11 attacks represent “triumphant globalization battling against itself” (Ibid.:11). Also, consider it against a number of strange details concerning Atta’s personality, notably claims that there were two different Attas: a hardliner fundamentalist and a flexible Westerner. What makes Atta so remarkable is that he lived in America for quite a long time and blended in strikingly well. One could even go so far as to argue that Atta was a Westerner. He had his idiosyncrasies, but was not a religious ‘robot’ at the command of al-Qaida control.

Atta led the attack on the World Trade Center and died by piloting American Airlines flight 11 into the North Tower. He was born at Kafr-el-Sheikh in the Nile Delta and was brought up in the suburbs outside Cairo. He was not raised in poverty. His father was a lawyer and his family lived in a relatively middle class neighbourhood. Atta studied architecture and city planning at the University of Cairo between 1985 and 1990. For many years he lived in Hamburg, Germany and attended the Technical University of Hamburg under the name Muhammad el-Amir. He was said to be a shy, considerate man and was close to Western acquaintances. His friends do remember him as introverted and very reserved. Employees at the planning consultancy firm where he worked in 1992 recall him as “flexible and conscientious”. While they do recall him as mildly critical of capitalistic Western development schemes, notably big hotels and offices, no one was at any time alarmed by his views.

In 1994 however, he took a week-long trip to Cairo and returned with a beard, trimmed in the manner of a North African fundamentalist. Shortly after this trip to Cairo he was laid off from work. He sent his last paycheque back to his employers because he received too much money, explaining that he had not earned the excess and refused to accept it. As time went on Atta began dressing in traditional baggy pants and flowing kaftans. He continued, however, to excel at his studies in Hamburg, and despite slipping a page from the Qur’an into his thesis, received the highest possible mark the school could award him.

It seems there were two different Attas: a shy tolerant university student in Hamburg and a terror cell ringleader in Egypt and the United States (Hooper, 2001). What can we say about this schizophrenic identity? At times Atta was indifferent to murder although at other times he cared very much about others, and not just Muslims (Ibid.) For instance, just two days before the hijacking of American Airlines flight 11, he rented a car in Pompano Beach, Florida. He called the owner of the car rental to inform him that the car’s oil light had turned on. Upon returning the car he told the owner once again. When asked about the incident, the owner spoke of Atta in the same manner that that those who had known him in Hamburg had: “…the only thing out of the ordinary was that he was nice enough to let me know that the car needed an oil change” (Ibid.)

Despite being strictly religious, in the weeks and months leading up to the 9/11 attacks, Atta and some of the other attackers enjoyed the occasional drink, danced, and even flirted with women. While they covered up swimsuit model posters on motel room walls, they ordered and watched a pornographic pay-per-view movie on one of the nights leading up to 9/11 (Reuter, 2004:8). As we scrutinize Atta’s biography we see less of a stereotypical CNN inspired Islamic “Other”, and more of a man familiar to us. “Hence”, according to Baudrillard, “the logic – however shocking – behind the fact that the terrorists lived banal American lives for years, boarded typical American airliners in typical American cities, before rounding on the nerve centre of the body politic itself from the inside” (Kearney, 2002:126). In Atta we find a man both outside and inside the system, a man who covers up swimsuit photos and at the same time orders pay-per-view pornography; a man who studies Western architectural engineering and planning and then creates a blueprint for the destruction of one of the West’s architectural marvels; a man contemplating mass murder and simultaneously concerned about the future wellbeing of a rental car.

We find an irreducible singularity emerge out from a system of generalized exchange, the exacerbation of an uncertain culture of virtuality carried out by a man who was produced and influenced by that very culture. In light of Baudrillard’s argument, we might consider Atta as a singularity that emerges from within the system, whose death initiates the suiciding of the system by its inability to adequately reciprocate. The system recognizes it cannot respond to the excess of such a singularity and falls back on Manichean dualisms in order to return the gift of ‘shock and awe’ in a ‘War (without-end) on Terror’.

VI. Conclusion
I have attempted to situate Mohammad Atta in the context of Baudrillard’s controversial symbolic explanation for 9/11. Readers of Baudrillard’s essay might criticize him for presenting far too theoretical a treatment of the nineteen men who commandeered the planes on September 11th, one that deprives them of their agency and responsibility by situating their suicidal urges within the wishes of Westerners (Baudrillard, 2002:5). Baudrillard has been criticized as presenting a fatalistic thesis that “seems to justify the act (9/11) as an ineluctable countermove within the binary game of absolute power” (Kearney, 2002:127). Regardless of one’s orientation towards Baudrillard’s controversial essay, Atta’s life and death can be understood as representative of the symbolic and sacrificial antagonism at the heart of the process of globalization that is so central to The Spirit of Terrorism.

Dustin Cohen recently obtained his M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Western Ontario. He lives in Toronto, Canada and currently works for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. He writes a blog called Cybject



Muhammad  Atta (2001). “Suicide Note. (September 18, 2001)”in Barry Rubin. Anti-American Terrorism: A Documentary Reader. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Jean Baudrillard [1976] 1993. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage.

Jean Baudrillard (2002. The Spirit of Terrorism. London and New York: Verso.

Georges Bataille (1985a). “The Notion of Expenditure” in Visions of Excess. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Georges Bataille (1985b). “Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh” in Visions of Excess. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Daniel Benjamin (2002). The Age of Sacred Terror New York: Random House.

Hamilton Camp [song lyrics] (1964). “Pride of Man”. Later popularized by the group Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Gerry Coulter (2004). “Reversibility: Jean Baudrillard’s One Great Thought”. An article in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 1, Number 2 (July):

Gerry Coulter (2008). “The Poetry of Reversibility and The Other in The English Patient”, In  Widescreen Journal, Volume 1, Number 1 (April):

Joyce M. Davis (2003). Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance, and Despair in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Katherine Hayles (1999). How We Became Posthuman. University of Chicago Press.

John Hooper (2001). “The Shy, Caring, Deadly Fanatic”:

Richard Kearney (2002). Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. London: Routledge.

Osama bin Laden (2001). “Nineteen Students: Statement from December 26, 2001” in Messages to the World.Edited by Bruce Lawrence. New York: Verso, 2002:145.

Marcel Mauss (1997). “Gift, Gift” in The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity. New York: Routledge.

Christoph Reuter (2004). My Life is a Weapon. Princeton University Press.


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