when the dust clears

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His hammer had five strings… Pete Seeger dies at 94

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Pete Seeger before rehearsal for Barack Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, January 2009

Jingo(ism) Unchained: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year. For some.

The film, now in limited release (and opening for real January 11), delivers a bounty of bangs and booms, and swaggering American heroes torturing swarthy bad guys—with no consequences—packaged in a ripping yarn.

The yarn: A waifish and improbably fragile CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, spends 12 years doggedly tracking Osama bin Laden, countenancing and supervising torture of detainees—beatings, waterboarding—along the way. As ZDT has it, her work led us to bin Laden’s fortress hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs dropped in and killed him and several members of his family. As she flies home alone in the belly of a military cargo plane after the deed is done, she sheds a tear. Roll credits.

Only the last part of the story line, the SEALs bit, resembles the most authoritative versions of what actually happened (much information about the operation and the intel that led to it is classified). The rest is a brutal Hollywood fantasy, a kind of jingo(ism) unchained, that stretches deep into the movie and corrupts it.

Several critics have taken a lighten up, it’s just a movie tack. Makers of fictional films have dramatic license to pump up a story, after all. Screenwriters and directors composite dreary real-life humans into a single, sexy dynamo, like Chastain’s Agent Maya, all the time. They add a boom here and a boom there, where no booms should be. No harm in that.

Problem one: The film itself asserts that ZDT is based on facts and firsthand testimony. But this is the least important flaw. The real concern for me is, there is a bar for fidelity to history— particularly such recent and raw history—that must be vaulted in a film that begins as Zero Dark Thirty does: with 911 audio from doomed callers trapped in the Towers on 9-11, which implicitly justifies what comes next. ZDT’s makers appear to have crawled under that bar without ever glancing up.

(Jane Mayer, who’s been writing about torture for the New Yorker for years, and Glenn Greenwald unravel the film’s fabric of distortion, seemingly stitch by stitch.)

Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan, among other truly dogged investigators, blazed the path to bin Laden by extracting information from al Qaeda enablers and operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He did it by talking to them.

“Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”

Soufan continues: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” Soufan also notes that many Americans assigned to investigations and detainee interrogation, including CIA agents, objected to the torture that was being carried out.

A long line of men and women who are in a position to know what happened have stepped up to challenge ZDT’s adaptation of real-life events, including some of our elected officials.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and raging liberal John McCain have taken on ZDT directly in a letter to the director: “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.” They’re not denying that torture took place. The senators are saying, unequivocally, that the true road to bin Laden did not begin, as it does in the film, with the violent extraction of vital information by a charming and strategically cruel CIA agent through beatings and waterboarding. “Everyone breaks in the end,” the interrogator tells his captive. “It’s biology.” This is, of course, untrue. Not everybody breaks. Most people lie. And some people die.

All three senators serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently completed a 6,000-page report, approved by a nine-to-six vote, that also states torture did not play a role in the mission to kill bin Laden.

Journalist Mark Bowden, however, writes in his recent book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden that two detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, did in fact provide actionable intelligence when tortured that aided the bin Laden hunt. “It should […] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods.”

Assuming that Bowden is correct and that some information was beaten or boarded out of Qahtani and Slahi, others in the know like Soufan tell us that using brain, not brawn—or dogs or Metallica cranked to 11—elicits better information more reliably.

Ultimately, torture boomerangs on the nation that authorizes it—us—by inciting others to retributive violence and fouling bona fide efforts to root out terrorism, not just kill terrorists (or those suspected of being terrorists).

We tortured Qahtani,” Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who oversaw military commissions for Guantanamo detainees, told the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

“War crimes charges against Mr. al Qahtani have been dismissed but may be refiled,” the NY Times reported recently.

“Of the cases I had seen, he was the one with the most blood on his hands,” Stuart Couch, the Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi (also rendered Salahi), told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

But: “Col. Couch would uncover evidence [that] the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated,” reporter Jesse Bravin wrote. Couch told his commander he was “morally opposed” to the methods used on Slahi, and declined to the take the case.

“I’m hoping there’s some non-tainted evidence out there that can put the guy in the hole,” Couch said. Both Qatani and Slahi have been held in limbo at Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

The Senate Select Committee’s report is classified, but may be released one day. That said, we will never know the whole story. The CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who has asserted for the record (and in his own book, Hard Measures) that torture works, destroyed videotapes documenting “coercive interrogation.” Ninety-two tapes, he told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty does terrible violence to the story on which it is based, the real story of the hunt for bin Laden. It popularizes a narrative that justifies inhumane and self-defeating practices. Fundamentally, in my view, it does a disservice to those who died trying to track down bin Laden the right way, and it dishonors those who lost their lives to the terrorist himself.

Facing Race 2012, Baltimore MD

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Facing Race, the Applied Research Center‘s biannual conference on racial justice, culture, politics, and so many other things, wrapped Saturday night.

I struggled to keep my ears peeled as I photographed—so much knowledge, heart and soul filled the venue, the lovely Baltimore Hilton.

Folks talked honestly and intelligently about race and its intersections with gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, immigration status. Attendees discussed the massive obstacles to dragging these issues into the mainstream but mostly explored how to make progress toward social and racial justice both on that level and among ourselves.

Check out: #facingrace. ARC will be posting some of the sessions online.

Now: photos…

Keynote speaker Junot Diaz, November 16, 2012

Amirah Sackett, Khadijah Sifterlah-Griffin and her sister Iman perform “We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic,” November 17, 2012

Preconference session, November 15, 2012

Hosts comedian W. Kamau Bell and media technologist Deanna Zandt, November 16, 2012

Closing performance by kids in the conference’s childcare program, November 17, 2012

U.S. Navy Psyops — In American Theaters Now!

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Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called PSYOP.Department of Defense Joint Publication 1-02

In January, the United States Navy celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Sea-Air-Land commandos — the now legendary SEALs. A month later, Act of Valor hit 3000 movie theaters across the country. It earned more than $24 million in its first weekend, blasting it to the top of box-office charts.

On the surface, AOV appears to be familiar merchandise, a big (though lowish-budget), dumb action flick marinated in testosterone and an American-might-is-right ethos. Everything in that description fits, except the “dumb” part.

After a sorry attempt to introduce and humanize the main characters, all SEALs — they cannot act, and so become indistinguishable from one another — AOV gets down to its cinematic business: serving up hot and riveting combat spectacle. Helmet cams send us into freefall with the special operators on a high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) parachute jump. We then glide up a Costa Rican river with coolheaded Naval Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCCs from here on out) in heavily armed boats to extract a SEAL element that’s taking withering bad-guy fire after rescuing a kidnapped CIA agent.

The boat’s GAU 17/M134D Gatling gun whirs like a monstrous mechanical bumblebee as it spits out 3000+ rounds a minute from its six barrels. The rounds perforate the thin steel sides of the thugs’ vehicles with pitter-patter pings. A pickup truck becomes a colander with wheels. (Presumably the rounds make a different sound when hitting people, but there’s too much noise in the sound mix to hear that, if it’s there at all.)

The action feels real because it is real — or at least kind of real. Active-duty SEALs and SWCCs play the lead roles and conduct these jaw-dropping operations — that’s AOV’s sole, yet boffo selling point. The ops are all the more convincing because the SEALs planned and executed them as actual training exercises. Live-fire exercises. (In real life, SEALs refer to themselves as “quiet professionals.” The Navy admits that the men who appear in AOV had to be compelled to step into the limelight by their commanders.)

Action filmmakers often collaborate with the Pentagon to get their hands on weapons of war — not just guns, but tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. To keep their precious privileges, directors carve out bits of dialogue and plot the military finds objectionable, off-message, or just plain despicable, even if they’re true. A scene in World War II movie Windtalkers where a U.S. marine wrenches gold teeth from the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier? Cut. There is a very long list of such films: Top Gun, Clear and Present Danger, Independence Day, G.I. Jane, and so on. (See David L. Robb’s book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.)

Sometimes these relationships sour, particularly if the screenplay heads in a direction military policymakers don’t like and stays there. That happened with Hurt Locker. (Films that are critical from the jump and stay that way such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now get no military love and must scrounge up hardware in places equipped by the U.S. like Thailand and the Philippines.)

AOV blows way past any sort of traditional military-civilian partnership. In fact, it harkens back to World War II when Frank Capra directed the Why We Fight series of propaganda films for the War Department, movies like Prelude to War and The Nazis Strike as well as the remarkably progressive The Negro Soldier. (Watch it online!) Unlike the civilian filmmakers who give us AOV, however, Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, Capra was a U.S. Army officer. It was his duty to create propaganda to serve the war effort.

AOV may be making money hand over fist — $58 million in the U.S. as of March 14 — but it is much, much more than a commercial product. It is the fruit of long-term naval strategy, brilliant operational planning, and flawless tactical employment.

Together with the Navy’s information office, Naval Special Warfare Command created the concept for AOV. The public affairs folks at NSW describe the genesis of the movie with martial clarity. “With an urgent requirement for more SEALs, NSW decided to take an innovative approach to its recruiting efforts,” reads an article in Ethos, NSW Command’s unclassified magazine. “One of those innovations was to grant access to a filmmaker who could credibly provide a compelling and accurate window into the Teams.”

NSW solicited proposals from three production companies to make AOV and settled on Bandito Brothers, the company run by McCoy and Waugh, which makes extreme sports videos. (Collider.com has a good interview with the filmmakers, who tell us, among other things, that the film was completed before SEAL Team 6 paid a nighttime visit to Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and killed him.)

“It was initially started as a recruiting film, so that we could help recruit minorities into teams,” Admiral Bill McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said a few weeks ago. This explains why the SEAL element we see on screen is so uncommonly brown and black. The actual SEAL force — and all U.S. special ops components — is overwhelmingly white.

NSW reviewed all the 1700 hours of footage for operational security reasons — high-ranking navy commanders have struggled to reassure critics within the military community that no classified special forces tactics, techniques, or procedures are revealed in the movie. They also stress that no taxpayer money was spent on AOV.

There’s more: NSW secured from the directors an agreement “to provide NSW with the entire catalogue of raw footage to repurpose for the Navy’s own use following the release of the movie,” according to the Ethos article. Not bad for zero money down.

AOV might not be a gripping tale, but it’s damn sure a ripping ride. I marveled at the technical complexity of the combat sequences — 15 cameras for one scene! I nodded in recognition as the “actors” delivered their lines like well-meaning robots because I’ve heard earnest young lieutenant-types deliver their talking points in the same dutiful tone. And after one scene, I cried. For real.

But I also hung my head in disbelief as the chaotic plot unloaded, and I cringed at the awful stereotypes. Kurt Johnstad, AOV’s screenwriter — and the guy who gave the world 300, a bloody romp set in ancient Persia — manages to squeeze in a phalanx of walking clichés. We get a psychotic Muslim terrorist, a nearly amoral Ukrainian Jewish smuggler (he’s the film’s only multidimensional character), and scheming Mexican narcos. Since diversity seems to be the order of the day, Johnstad could have thrown in a Simon Mann-like Brit mercenary. Or a venal non-Jewish arms dealer — Viktor Bout, a Russian now awaiting sentencing in a New York City prison for conspiring to kill American citizens and officials, comes to mind. Or perhaps a corrupt U.S. congressman based on the real-life Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was convicted of taking bribes from not one, not two, but three defense contractors. And to be fair, I can’t leave out my African brothers: Johnstad could also have crammed in a demented and homicidal Ugandan warlord like Joseph Kony.

The problem with AOV runs deeper than its many layers of lameness and naval provenance. While the physical terrain the SEALs navigate and dominate in AOV is visually rich, the figurative terrain of the film is flat, dull, empty. There are no political, legal, humanitarian, or ethical dilemmas. There’s no sense of history, place, culture, nothing to give the film any resonance or cohesion, just fiery displays of tactical excellence and depictions of individual heroism. This is not an accident.

More than just a shiny digital fishing lure cast in front of enlistment-age boys, AOV functions as both justification for and promotion of a dangerous policy, the frequent dispatching of clandestine warriors to do the dirty, secret, and often extralegal work of the administration. This very old practice was updated and popularized by Dick Cheney (and George Bush) and has been dramatically expanded by President Barack Obama.

Examined in this light, the movie’s flaws become virtues. Troublesome moral, political, historical crap is cleared away, leaving nothing that would allow the viewer to generate just a little empathy for anyone other than the American heroes — say, perhaps, a civilian trapped in the crossfire or on the despoiled battlefield. Without such vital, real-world context, the SEALs become superhuman cartoon warriors, “our nation’s avenging angels,” as Vice President Joe Biden called all special ops forces in 2011. This is dangerous hagiography. Guardians protect democracy. Avengers, especially ones for whom the administration claims divine sanction, imperil it.

Roughly 60,000 US Special Forces personnel operate in 80-odd countries — these are the ones revealed publicly — on a $10 billion budget. “Special forces assist teams” are now working in five South Asian countries — Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India — the head of U.S. Pacific Command announced a few days ago. That’s on top of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Who knew? This item made the news in the U.K. and South Asia — a friend in Bangladesh sent me a link — but not here.

Now would be a perfect time for us to consider how successive American presidents, particularly the current one, use our secret troops as global policemen — and extralegal assassins. AOV is anything but a catalyst for such a discussion. It’s a giant ideological pillow that both comforts Americans and smothers our critical thinking. It a USA-first children’s story — explosive, cathartic, and reassuring — executive produced by naval commanders. The message: Why think? The avenging angels will take care of us.

And now we come to the crying…

— Spoiler Alert —

In the movie’s penultimate scene, Lieutenant Rorke, a stalwart and courageous SEAL who is barely distinguishable from the film’s other stalwart and courageous main character, leaps onto a grenade tossed at his team by one of the Mexican drug henchmen. Rorke is blown off the floor to waist height. A pool of blood flows from beneath him and spreads slowly across the floor. Cut to an extreme close-up of his open eyes. His lids droop, and then open again, this time dead and staring. At his funeral, team members honor the LT; his equally stalwart wife suffers silently. This is when I teared up.

My first day in Iraq in 2004, I watched a marine bleed out, just as the fictional lieutenant did. I knew other marines who were later killed in action. I count wounded marines among my friends. Perhaps this is why the scene hit me so hard. But my personal history aside, this sequence is by far the movie’s most nuanced and moving. It works unlike anything else in AOV aside from the bang-bang.

What I would call a skillful penetration of my intellectual defenses and a straight-up manipulation of my emotions, Navy brass would call a successful psyop. This is precisely why Act of Valor is so frightening.


I crossed paths with Rachel Maddow today

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I was bursting through the opening doors of an R train as Maddow walked toward the subway car. Like any smart and mindful commuter, she approached at a sharp angle to avoid the stream of agitated New Yorkers exploding from the train, of which, I will say proudly, I was at the head.

I was moving like a man with a double shot of espresso under his belt, which is precisely the man I was, so I didn’t have time to register much, only her furrowed brow, horn rims, and a scarf (tartan or checked?).

I climbed the stairway to Broadway imagining what I might have said to Maddow — not that I would have said anything even if I had been less caffeinated. Chatting up high-wattage celebs, even fellow journos, feels to me like star-slurping, more commonly known as brown-nosing. I’m too proud, and I doubt Maddow would have been especially inclined to spend quality time in conversation with a random subway rider.

But had I found the combination of gumption and humility to bust such a move, I might have hopped back on the train, gently introduced myself to her, and then posed a few polite and sagacious questions — with an eye toward, say, an invitation to appear on the show.

“Ms. Maddow, may I ask whether you’ll be discussing former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s smackdown of Juan Williams, to the cheers of the South Carolinian audience, at last night’s debate?”

That was an absolutely arresting moment, one I’ll point to if someone tells me that the Republican presidential race is not, at least in part (a huge part), about Barack Obama’s race. Williams could have called the former Speaker’s race-card bluff, his claim that Obama is the “food-stamp president” with facts, but he didn’t.

Participation rates in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, the name for the Federal food stamp program since 2008, rose seven out of the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. And, according to the Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, “the large increase in the number of participants was likely attributable to the deterioration of the economy, expansions in SNAP eligibility, and continued outreach efforts.” (Be warned: This SNAP link leads to a PDF.) At the very least, this gives us two food-stamp presidents, the first who hobbled the economy by launching two wars and handing out tax cuts to the one percent, and the second who inherited those wars and has kept one going at full steam.

I might also have asked her whether she’d be tackling Rick Perry’s doubling down on his criticism of President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and others in the administration for condemning the acts depicted in the infamous scout-sniper urinating video.

“When the secretary of defense calls that a despicable act, when he calls that utterly despicable,” Perry charged, “let me tell you what is utterly despicable: cutting Danny Pearl’s head off and showing the video, hanging our contractors from bridges, that’s utterly despicable. For our president, for the secretary of state, for the Department of Defense secretary to make those kinds of statements about those young marines, yes they need to be punished, but when you see this president with that type of disdain for our country, taking a trillion dollars out of our defense budget, a hundred thousand of our military off of our front lines? I lived through a reduction of forces once and I saw the results of it in the sands of Iran in 1979.”

First of all: Daniel Pearl and murdered military contractors? To appropriate these tragedies for his own political point-scoring is a desecration.

Secondly, “disdain for our country?” Slam Obama’s policies, but to attack his loyalty to America is simply cowardly and deceitful. The esteemed journalists on the debate panel could have reality- or morality-checked Perry. But they didn’t. And they didn’t challenge him on the facts, either.

“Adjusting for inflation, the level of funding proposed for the base defense budget in the FY 2012 request is the highest level since World War II, surpassing the Cold War peak of $531 billion (in FY 2012 dollars) reached in FY 1985.” That’s according to CSBA, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. What the administration’s 2012 budget proposes to cut, too timidly and gently in my view, is the growth rate of our alarmingly bloated military spending, which peaked in 2007, and funds spent on war, war, war.

The media inquisitors also might have quoted General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, on the incident behind Perry’s initial smear.

“I have viewed an internet video that depicts Marines desecrating several dead Taliban in Afghanistan. I want to be clear and unambiguous, the behavior depicted in the video is wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history.”

Note the verb the general, the highest-ranking US Marine, uses to characterize the actions.

Amos continues: “Rest assured that the institution of the Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved. We remain fully committed to upholding the Geneva Convention, the Laws of War, and our own core values.”

High standards and values. The presidential candidates and the journalists ostensibly covering them would benefit from a helping of both.

I’m not sure I would have impressed Maddow, but I would have unburdened myself of this maddening, absurd, and frightening stuff. For the moment, at least.

Product placement of rodneys?

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Detail from a movie ad, 14th Street F train station, downtown platform:

The engraving on Kate Beckinsale’s weapon has most likely been altered to remove the name of the manufacturer, Beretta, and to scramble other information. However, the film’s PR people included the model number, 92FS, so you can Google your way to a new 9mm just like Beckinsale’s avenging Underworld character Selene totes (extra-large clip available elsewhere). So helpful!

Beckinsale’s Beretta FS is apparently a modification of the off-the-shelf model, which might explain why the posterized version isn’t an exact match of the website models.

The Italian version

Beretta 92FS Type M9A1, available in the U.S.

Selene packed a Beretta “fitted with compensators and modified to fire full auto” in the first Underworld, according to imfdb.org, a site that lovingly catalogs firearms featured in movies.

What grabbed my attention was, of course, the size of Beckinsale’s piece — my grandfather, an NYPD officer from 1936 to 1956, would have called it a “rod” or “rodney” — as it’s rendered in the ad. I just finished reading an advanced copy of Glock: The Rise of The American Gun by Paul M. Barrett, a Businessweek editor. It’s an engaging and shocking account — absolutely no hyperbole here — of the infiltration of this Austrian pistol into U.S. gun culture and its eventual domination of the market. “Approximately 65% of police departments in America already put a GLOCK in between them and the problem,” says the arms maker’s U.S. website.

(FYI: Paul Barrett will be speaking at Brooklyn’s Book Court on January 10.)

Glock also conquered Hollywood. Detective Sonny Crockett, the pastel-outfitted TV cop played by Don Johnson in Miami Vice, was the first American character to carry one on screen, says imfdb. That series ended in 1990. More recently, 50 Cent rocked a Glock in the film Twelve. Mr. Cent’s particular model: the Glock 17.

My F train encounter with Selene’s elephantine rodney was simply the most recent catalyst to ignite my interest in movie guns. While reporting for a Fortune magazine story on product placement in 1998, I tried to get gun company PR flacks to cop to paying movie studios for placement of their firearms in films, because it seemed to me that certain guns kept popping up on the silver screen. (As fate would have it, the movie gun that grabbed my attention back then was a Beretta 92FS sported by Chow Yun Fat in The Replacement Killers. I didn’t remember this until today.)

Back then I wrote:

For instance, Smith & Wesson used a product-placement firm, International Promotions, to put its wares in the hands of stars. The company scored with the TV show Brooklyn South and the film For Richer or Poorer, but fearing bad press, S&W severed the relationship, says Ken Jorgensen, the gunmaker’s public relations manager. “It was just pretty much a consensus that it wasn’t something we wanted to do,” he says, “and when it expired, it was gone.”

I wonder if product placement of guns is back? Anyone?

Written by bxpnyc

2012/01/05 at 11:55