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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Clear Case of Overkill

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Shamil Basayev has been destroyed. Or so everyone says. I am not trying to cast doubt on the claims that he is dead -- though I could be forgiven for doing so, following all the previous false reports of his death. It is the word "destroyed" that interests me.

The use of the word "destroyed" in Russian combat-victory reports goes back to at least World War II, when radio news anchors proudly proclaimed that "the enemy has been destroyed." But that was a sort of collective enemy. Now the head of the FSB reports to the president that a single man has been destroyed. The idea of not using the simple and accurate word "killed" is, obviously, to dehumanize the enemy. But it makes Basayev sound more, not less, than human. It makes him sound downright huge, like an airplane, an entire detachment of soldiers, or at the very least a tank.

The details of Basayev's death that have come out in the last couple of days only confirm this impression. An explosion that was heard all the way in the neighboring city of Nazran was required to kill Russia's public enemy No. 1. The men killed in this explosion along with Basayev are, apparently, impossible to count, either because there were so many or because they are now in so many pieces. According to different reports, Basayev himself was identified either by his severed head, or by his prosthetic leg.

Most media reports of Basayev's death suggested that the Chechen leader was betrayed by one of his own people -- who kept the FSB informed of his whereabouts -- and then killed by an air-to-ground missile, the sort you would use to destroy a building, not a person. That did not jibe with television footage, which showed mangled vehicles but not the sort of pit that one would expect as a result of a missile strike. Izvestia, the country's leading "quality" daily, is conducting its own investigation into the killing of Basayev. The day after Basayev's death, Izvestia informed its readers that Basayev was killed "in the course of a most complicated intelligence operation involving persons abroad and space technology." The next day Izvestia said that was maybe right and maybe wrong, but here was a different version of events.

According to Izvestia, the FSB got help from someone in another country, the country from which Basayev was receiving a shipment of arms. This someone slipped a detonator into the shipment. Then an unmanned aircraft called Pchela (Bee) was employed to keep track of Basayev himself. FSB agents watched his movements on a screen receiving signals from the plane. When Basayev was standing right next to the truck loaded with explosives, one of the agents activated the detonator by remote control, and everyone blew up.

This is a pretty neat picture. Actually, it is a faithful reproduction of Israeli anti-terrorist operations (right down to the less-than-credible detail that several people are watching the screen and making a collective decision on when to activate the detonator), which does not make it untrue. What's fascinating are the things Izvestia writers take so much for granted that they seem to warrant no discussion. Prime among them is the fact that Basayev was receiving a shipment of arms from abroad on the territory of Ingushetia -- not even Chechnya. This may very well be true, but it belies the Kremlin's and its media's (of which Izvestia is a key part) claims that law and order have been virtually restored in Chechnya. In truth, not only Chechnya, but more and more of the North Caucasus is living in disarray, fear and violence.

In this chaos, the security services deployed all their might and technology to get a man whom they had ostensibly been trying to catch and kill for more than a decade. That certainly makes him seem more than human, like an entire combat detachment, an airplane, or at least a tank.

Masha Gessen is a Moscow journalist.