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Mexicolore contributor Patricia Leidl

IN THE NEWS: femicide in Mexico (1)

We are sincerely grateful to Patricia Leidl for this provocative and thought-provoking (abridged) essay on the possible pre-Hispanic roots of femicide in Mexico. Patricia Leidl is a Vancouver-based international communications adviser and author who has is now Senior Communications Advisor with the USAID-funded PROMOTE Women’s Leadership and Development project in Afghanistan. She is former Chief, Communications and Advocacy, for the HIV/AIDs Dept. at the WHO and Managing Editor of the New York-based UN Population Fund State of the World’s Population Report.

Pic 1: Dr. Alejandro Hernández Cárdenas Rodríguez
Pic 1: Dr. Alejandro Hernández Cárdenas Rodríguez

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Femicide in Mexico
“Go ahead, touch it.” A bit squeamish but curiosity prevails. The surface feels smooth and almost rubbery. “Here, go under the skin,” he says. The fatty nodules slip between thumb and forefinger like fresh tapioca.
“This is one of the girls you are writing about,” says 54-year-old Dr. Hernández Cárdenas gently in his halting English. “You can see how soft and pliable the tissue is. When we found her all that was left of her was a sheet of mummified leather - like in the photo I showed you.” “The one that looked like a blanket of beefy jerky?” “Tougher,” he replies. “You would never have known it belonged to someone human, let alone a 14-year-old girl. We estimate that she was killed about a year ago.”
Dr. Hernández Cárdenas is dressed in hospital scrubs, double facemask and gloves (a soothing powder blue color) scented with talcum powder. He crouches over a plastic tub filled with approximately one meter of human skin floating in a chemical solution of unknown provenance - Dr Cárdenas’s secret resurrection fluid.

Pic 2: Dr. Hernández Cárdenas at work
Pic 2: Dr. Hernández Cárdenas at work

Soft music filters through the chemical, faintly gamey white room where Cárdenas keeps his “Jacuzzi.” The latter is a large man-sized plexi-glass aquarium that sits squarely in the middle. It stands empty now - unusual in a city morgue that used to receive 30 corpses a day.
It is a Thursday morning in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, at the Office of the Medical Examiner where Cárdenas, a forensic dentist, is on the cusp of revolutionizing forensic science. His discovery? A solution that allows medical investigators to rehydrate mummified remains.
By reconstituting mummified tissue and halting the process of putrefaction, Cárdenas has been able to work with detectives and the medical examiner to firstly: identify victims - through fingerprints, visual recognition, tattoos, birthmarks and other physical features - and secondly, to determine the cause of death. Rehydration allows pathologists to spot lesions, bruising or other traumatic soft tissue injuries that can only be assessed using Dr. Cárdenas’s technique. An unintended consequence?: A short stint in the “Jacuzzi” effectively embalms the victim at no cost to bereaved family members.

Pic 3: Dr. Cárdenas leads students at a conference on corpse rehydration at the Museo de Ciencias y Tecnología in Chiapas, October 2014
Pic 3: Dr. Cárdenas leads students at a conference on corpse rehydration at the Museo de Ciencias y Tecnología in Chiapas, October 2014

So successful is Cárdenas’s method, that close relatives have not only been able to identify their loved ones through facial recognition, but have also held open casket funerals. Moreover, rehydration can also determine whether trauma is new or older. The presence of older bruises inflicted over a period of time, points to the likelihood of domestic abuse and the probability that the killer is an intimate partner.
But today, Cárdenas is focusing on the other scourge that has been plaguing this city for two decades and the reason why he became interested in the rehydration of remains in the first place. “This,” he says sadly, holding up what appears to be a small pocket in the skin with a jagged empty circle in the middle of it, “Is the marks they left when they cut off her nipple and this,” he points to the area where the other breast should have been, “is where they cut off her other one.” Then he carefully lifts a cleanly cut edge where the victim’s shoulder once was, “and this is where they chopped off her arm.” The crescent-shaped puncture marks on the breast flap? “Bites,” he says cryptically.

Pic 4: Dr. Cárdenas addresses a conference on corpse rehydration in Mexico
Pic 4: Dr. Cárdenas addresses a conference on corpse rehydration in Mexico

Cárdenas is a small man of gentle humor whose face has settled into an expression of permanent sadness. Haunted in fact. It is as if all of the ghosts of murdered and mutilated girls are crowding around in this hushed and tiny room, lamenting their truncated lives.
It is their unsolved murders, Cárdenas maintains, that pushed him to come up with a way to rehydrate so many unidentified Jane Does, nameless girls whose remains were discarded like so much trash in the empty lots and ditches surrounding the city’s perimeter. Their youth, poverty and the sadistic nature of their deaths obsessed him. “I used to take many girls to bed,” he told a New York Times reporter in 2012, “but not in the way you think.”

Pic 5: The graves of victims of femicide in Ciudad Juarez, all painted pink. The crosses read ‘Not one more...’
Pic 5: The graves of victims of femicide in Ciudad Juarez, all painted pink. The crosses read ‘Not one more...’

***
They call it femicide
The Cristo Negro stands high on a hill above the city with his arms outstretched. It is hard to say whether the artist who designed the 15-meter “Black Christ” did so to succor or to supplicate - most likely both. For the city over which the statue presides, is in critical need of both.
For this is ”Murder City” - aka Ciudad Juárez, Mexico - where the risk of an ugly and violent death is simply the price one pays for living here. Not only has this dusty border city earned a reputation of being among the most violent in the world, but it is also “ground zero” of Mexico’s femicide, which, since 1994, has swept this city like a contagion.
And like an epidemic, the violence has snaked outward from Juárez, to Chihuahua City, infecting Estado de Mexico (which includes part of the Federal District of Mexico), Vera Cruz, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Oaxaca, the southern states bordering Guatemala and Central America itself.

Pic 6: Ciudad Juarez - ‘Grief City’
Pic 6: Ciudad Juarez - ‘Grief City’

Today, Mexico is in the grips of a human security crisis that few living in the US or elsewhere even know about. Border cities such as Nogales and Nueva Laredo for example, are essentially war zones where cartels duke it out - among themselves, the military and other government-supported paramilitary groups - to gain control of the multi-billion dollar “narco corridors” into the US, the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs.
To date, Mexico scores a lowly 72 out of 148 countries in the UNDP’s annual Gender Inequality Index, which pulls its overall human development score down to 61 out of 187 countries - despite the fact that it is now no longer designated a ‘developing’ country. Although the nation has made considerable strides with respect to access to education for women and girls, maternal mortality and legislative representation (women hold 36 percent of all parliamentary seats), violence against women leapt sharply from 2006 to 2013 - and in 2014 to 2015 - even more sharply. According to all indications, this trend will likely continue.

Pic 7: *Currently the Red Nacional de Refugios is able to offer some sort of refuge in every Mexican state
Pic 7: *Currently the Red Nacional de Refugios is able to offer some sort of refuge in every Mexican state

Dr. Rosa Maria Salazar Rivera, the (at that time) Director of Red Nacional De Refugios, a system of women’s shelters that are located in several, but not all of Mexico’s 32 states*, says the more powerful narco-gang members “collect” women, imprison and impregnate them only to abandon them in safe houses scattered throughout the vast swathes of desert, forest, mountain and savannahs controlled by organized crime.
“The abandoned women are the lucky ones,” she adds, thoughtfully cocking her head to one side. “They are more likely to escape because their ‘husband’ has lost interest. You have to understand that this is not about love, it’s about capturing and imprisoning as many women as possible in order to enhance their status within the gang and with other narco groups.”

Pic 8: ‘No more violence against women’ - Amnesty International campaign graphic
Pic 8: ‘No more violence against women’ - Amnesty International campaign graphic

She cites one case of a young woman who managed to escape. When she was 19, her own mother sold her to a sicario, a for-hire assassin. By the time she found her way to the refugio, her mental health was so damaged she had to be institutionalized. She is still so traumatized, that she will likely be unable to testify anytime in the near future - if ever. “These women are treated in a way that is almost beyond the powers of the imagination,” says Salazar Rivera.
There are reasons, however, why Mexico and other Latin American countries have become killing fields for women. Quite apart from the more recent past that includes cycles of revolution followed by repression and the harnessing of foreign economic and military power to maintain that status quo, it is necessary to cast our gaze back in time to the Spanish conquest and even before. To examine how the culture of male impunity develops and then metastasizes in modern times, thereby unraveling the social fabric of the entire society, we must take a journey back in time to the Aztec Empire, when Mexican culture as we now know it was still in its infancy.

Pic 9: ‘A gender utopia of “complementary” equality’? Detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 9: ‘A gender utopia of “complementary” equality’? Detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

***
Cosmic Foes
To situate narco violence against women within the larger historical context however, it is necessary to understand the cultural dialectic of Machismo (power) versus Marianismo (submission). This dualistic interpretation of gender norms long precedes modern times; even in the pre-Columbian era, the diminution of the status of women and girls created a culture of militarization and the valorization of conquest and war.
When writing about pre-Conquest times it is tempting for historians to depict a gender utopia of “complementary” equality. However, this would be doing an injustice to what we now know. Although women enjoyed greater autonomy during the late Toltec period and early years of Aztec rule, as the empire matured, the role of women became increasingly contradictory - though women were certainly valued, they were also seen as the cosmic antagonists of men. As Aztec society increasingly marginalized women and confined their influence to the domestic sphere, the empire became more martial, acquired more lands and consolidated its power through the use of military force.

Pic 10: Tuchpa, in the Huaxteca, was one of the richest provinces and sources of valuable textiles tribute for the Aztec empire. Codex Mendoza, fol. 52r (detail)
Pic 10: Tuchpa, in the Huaxteca, was one of the richest provinces and sources of valuable textiles tribute for the Aztec empire. Codex Mendoza, fol. 52r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec emphasis on the valorization of war and those who waged it affected women in two ways. First, the state increasingly used religion to demonize and diminish women in order to produce a warrior class that would unquestioningly follow orders and wage incessant, brutal war.
Second, because the preferred tribute was cloth and women were its primary producers, in order to meet Tenochtitlan’s unquenchable thirst for textiles, the Aztecs allowed men living in conquered lands to take more than one wife. This, the victors hoped, would encourage men to force their wives to ramp up their production. It also, however, resulted in greater conflict within families, the lowering of the legal age of marriage for girls from 16 to younger and greater inequality within the home and society, while also producing a class of men who would never form families, not unlike the bare branches of China.

Pic 11: Chicomoztoc, the womb-like Aztec cave of (human) origin, as depicted in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, fol. 34
Pic 11: Chicomoztoc, the womb-like Aztec cave of (human) origin, as depicted in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, fol. 34 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec people considered the female body itself, and more particularly the womb, as sacred: the dark, moist, earthy fount that, warmed by the male sun, bought forth life. But this is where the “complementary” status of women becomes contradictory: For from a cosmological, religious and spiritual point of view, the Aztec State actually considered women to be the enemies of men.
Initially the Aztec empire had plenty of female religious role models to choose from. These include Cihuacoatl/Coatlicue, the earth goddess, who, much like the Hindu Kali, was also the goddess of both life and death. Half a dozen others were of particular importance to commoners. These were: Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of lakes and rivers; Chicomecoatl, the maize goddess; Mayahuel, the maguey goddess; Huixtocihuatl, the goddess of salt; and Teteo innan/Toci, the goddess of healing; and Xochiquetzal, the goddess of sensuality, feasting, fine craftsmanship and sexual pleasure. These occupied the personal, spiritual, natural, medical and sexual spheres of the Aztec cosmology.

Pic 12: ‘This vision of divine complementary equality was to change under the Aztecs...’ Pre-Hispanic figures, Anahuacalli Museum of Diego Rivera, Mexico City
Pic 12: ‘This vision of divine complementary equality was to change under the Aztecs...’ Pre-Hispanic figures, Anahuacalli Museum of Diego Rivera, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

But this vision of divine complementary equality was to change under the Aztecs who perhaps were, as David Carrasco writes, “plagued by a sense of illegitimacy and cultural inferiority.” As relative newcomers to the sophisticated and more female-friendly civilization of the Toltecs that preceded them, they arrived from the north first as despised newcomers, then clawed their way up to the status of warrior class and later, with the help of a series of strategic marital alliances, arose as the titular power in Mesoamerica.
As Elizabeth M. Brumfiel writes in Aztec Women: Capable Partners and Cosmic Enemies, the Aztec State began to promulgate a religion that was a very different animal from everyday devotional practices. Its rulers, priests and warrior castes emphasized a mythology, ritual and art that defined a strict gender hierarchy that, in debasing women, promoted the supremacy of war. Indeed, by the time Hernan Cortes arrived on Mexico’s shores, Aztec society had become increasingly bellicose, with an emphasis on conquering more territory and exacting as much tribute from vassal states by force of arms as possible - usually in the form of cloth, slaves and sacrificial victims.

Pic 13: The birth of Huitzilopochtli, Florentine Codex Book 3
Pic 13: The birth of Huitzilopochtli, Florentine Codex Book 3  (Click on image to enlarge)

Four key male deities were advanced as protectors of the Aztec Empire: Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Xipe Totec. Of these it was Huitzilopochtli, the God of War, who came to prominence at the height of Aztec power. His relationship to the goddesses of the pantheon is of particular interest in the context of Mexico’s femicides. History defines the present - even with respect to who will be singled out for murder and how their killers choose to dispatch them. Thus the signatures of Mexico’s current femicides were first writ on the bodies of their Aztec goddesses.
A number of commentators describe the myth of Huitzilopochtli as a cosmological projection of both the fear of female power and its repression. In the myth, Huitzilopochtli was conceived while his earth-goddess mother performed devotions at a shrine at the top of Coatepec, the axis mundi of the Aztec world - otherwise known as “the navel of the world” and the intersection between the corporeal and incorporeal realms. But the goddess’ pregnancy shamed her daughter Coyolxauhqui, who believed her mother to be - at least according to the ‘new’ Aztec interpretation - little more than a celestial strumpet. She and her brothers, the stars, plotted to kill the Earth Goddess.

Pic 14: Huitzilopochtli attacks Coyolxauhqui and defeats her brothers, the stars. Florentine Codex, Book 3
Pic 14: Huitzilopochtli attacks Coyolxauhqui and defeats her brothers, the stars. Florentine Codex, Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

When the band of cosmic conspirators reached the summit, to their great surprise, Huitzilopochti sprung fully adult and fully armed from his mother’s womb. He hacked his sister to death and tossed her decapitated head, arms, legs and limbless torso down the mountain where they eventually came to rest at the base.
Huitzilopochtli then attacked the stars and they scattered across the firmament leaving the newly hatched Solar God, “in uncontested possession of the celestial field.” Grieving, Coatlicue tearfully gathered up her warrior daughter’s severed head and placed it in the night sky among her starry sons. Coyolxauhqui was now a Moon Goddess. Nevertheless, the defeat of the female Coyolxauhqui at the hands of the male Huitzilopochtli symbolized not only “the primordial victory of light and cosmic order over darkness and chaos” - a drama repeated each morning with the banishment of the death’s head Moon Goddess by the burning light of the solar God - but the supremacy of men, especially warriors, over women.

Pic 15: Model of the dismembered figure of Coyolxauhqui, outside Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 15: Model of the dismembered figure of Coyolxauhqui, outside Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec rulers devised such narratives to construct state power and create an uncontested army by promoting the strength and bravery of male warriors at the expense of women and so called “female” tendencies towards non-violence. Women were disrupters of cosmic harmony and therefore enemies of the Aztec State: death and dismemberment was therefore completely justified. According to Brumfiel, the two best-known extant pieces of Aztec state-sponsored art were monumental sculptures of the goddesses Coatlicue and Coyolxauhqui - both depicted “as victims of celestial male violence.”
With this deep cultural context in mind, the link between impunity for the debasement and harm of women and broader male use of violence on a societal and inter-societal level finds a downstream echo in contemporary femicide in the Mexican context. For example, the dismemberment of the Moon goddess closely mirrors salient features of the Mexican femicide where dismemberment and decapitation are common.

Pic 16: Detail of the face of Coyolxauhqui, stone monolith, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 16: Detail of the face of Coyolxauhqui, stone monolith, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

As Jane Caputi notes in her excellent essay Goddess Murder and Gynocide in Ciudad Juárez, dismembering a woman also effectively “dis-articulates” her. It renders her voiceless and helpless. It neutralizes and reduces her to no more than random body parts. It obliterates her very identity and thus erases her as a human being. That asphyxiation is a favored mode of dispatch for femicidaires is also emblematic of the need to silence, to choke off the feminine.
The stories of Coatlicue and Coyolxauhqui also echo other ritualistic aspects of femicide: i.e. the removal of eyes, breast mutilations and injuries to the genitals. One does not, Caputi points out, have to be a priest to conduct blood sacrifice. Writes Caputi: “The murders of women and girls in Juárez are crimes, but at the same time, can be understood as patriarchal sacrificial rituals.”

Pic 17: Aztecs bow down before the Spaniards: detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 17: Aztecs bow down before the Spaniards: detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

***
The Conquest of Femininity
Armed with their bibles and deploying arms to force belief in the holy trinity of the father, the son and the holy ghost, the arrival of the Spaniards effectively meant an all out attack on the Amerindian feminine and masculine - and resulted in the snuffing out of one of the most advanced, but also the most militaristic, clusters of civilizations in the entire world. Nevertheless, the cult of male superiority and male impunity to harm women has persisted across the centuries, making Mexican society a dangerous landscape through which its modern-day daughters must navigate.
For example, domestic abuse in Mexico is rampant, with over two-thirds of Mexican women reporting violence from their intimate partners. With little in the way of public or prosecutorial support, women stay silent for fear of even greater retribution. This contributes to the escalation of domestic violence as it becomes ‘normalized,’ with younger household members taking on the gendered roles of perpetrator (if male) and victim (if female). Boys witness violence and identify with the perpetrator and learn that it is okay to use violence to resolve disputes, while girls identify with the victim and learn that male familial hegemony is just the ‘way things are.’ The mother is usually depressed, frequently sick and can’t effectively parent.

Pic 18: Poster of missing and murdered girls of Ciudad Juarez
Pic 18: Poster of missing and murdered girls of Ciudad Juarez (Click on image to enlarge)

Outside of the home, the world becomes a dystopic killing field, where no woman or girl child can be safe. Large groups of disenfranchised and unemployed youth learn that it is easier and far more lucrative to join criminal gangs than to break their backs for $4 per day. More women are working outside of the home, but usually in ill-paid insecure jobs that men feel entitled to despite the fact that they might not necessarily even want them. Resentment builds. Girls and young women begin to disappear only to turn up dead or dismembered, bearing marks of unspeakable torture.
Already weary to the bone, mothers fear for their daughters and try to protect them by accompanying them to-and-from school, which in turn impairs their ability to provide, to have a life outside of fear. When their daughters disappear or are found dead, their mothers (and fathers) must then make the rounds of police stations, prosecutors offices, refugios and undertake their own investigation to determine either who killed or abducted their daughters. Many lose their jobs owing to absenteeism, further plunging their families into poverty.

Pic 19: Sergio González Rodríguez presenting at the Tec de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus
Pic 19: Sergio González Rodríguez presenting at the Tec de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus (Click on image to enlarge)

***
Mexico-city based Reforma columnist Sergio Rodriguez-Gonzalez has followed the events in Juárez for more than 20 years. His 2012 book, The Femicide Machine, is a stinging rebuke of Mexico and corporate America’s failure to act and is one of the most eloquent accounts of the femicide that has yet been written. It is also an indictment of machismo - that savage interpretation of masculinity which valorizes force, militarism and unfettered capitalism at the expense of women, girls and all of those activists, journalists, indigenous populations and the very poor who for whatever reason find themselves on the receiving end of narco- and state-sponsored terror.
Considered one of Mexico’s most fearless reporters, Rodriguez-Gonzalez has received death threats, been beaten up so severely that he had to be hospitalized and has, on occasion, been forced into hiding. A small man with a nose squashed to one side and large expressive eyes, Rodriguez-Gonzalez does not appear at all nervous but has every right to be. According to Freedom House, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. More than 82 have been murdered since 2000 and many dozens more have been ‘disappeared.’ Moreoever, Mexico has the highest rate of assassinations of women’s human rights workers in the world.

Read the concluding part - link below...

Pic 20: Indigenous woman; detail from a mural on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 20: Indigenous woman; detail from a mural on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo accessed from http://www.elgolfo.info/nota/138274-revoluciona-mexicano-in../
• Pic 2: Photo from Facebook.com / Alejandro Hernandez Cardenas Rodriguez - accessed from https://actualidad.rt.com/ciencias/170524-mexico-medico-devolver-vida-muertos
• Pix 3 & 4: Photos accessed from http://www.infa.edu.mx/noticias/conferencia-rehidratacion-de-cadaveres.htm
• Pix 5 & 6: Photos accessed from http://grotesqueandarabesque.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/las-muertas-de-juarez.html
• Pic 7: Graphic accessed from http://www.rednacionalderefugios.org.mx/red-nacional-de-refugios.html
• Pic 8: Graphic accessed from http://www.rednacionalderefugios.org.mx/resena.html
• Pix 9 & 17: Photos by Eva Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: Illustration from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 11: Public domain
• Pix 12, 15, 16 & 20: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 13 & 14: Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 18: Photo courtesy of Patricia Leidl
• Pic 19: Photo from Wikipedia (Sergio González Rodríguez).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 03rd 2016

Read Part Two...

‘Female homicides in Ciudad Juárez’ (Wikipedia)

Read FNS Special Feature: 20 Years of Border Femicide

Read New York Times article ‘Doctor’s Bath for Corpses Reinvigorates Cold Cases’

Website of the Red Nacional de Refugios (in Spanish)

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Thank you VERY much, Rob (and Zoe, below), for taking time and trouble to send these carefully reasoned, balanced and very informative comments. We knew this was going to be a controversial article, but felt it important to upload it both to raise extra awareness generally about the tragic femicide issue and also to throw up at least the possibility of it having pre-Hispanic undertones of some kind. We stress in our work in schools here in England that women generally in Mexica society were highly respected (starting with the simple fact that girls went to school!), and we have several articles on the role of women written by world experts on our site. But we want to remain open to all viewpoints. We hope this discussion will continue - what do others think?