If we were not mourning a brave man who has just died a horrible death, one would almost have to admire the Russians, not just for audacity, but for technique in Litvinenko's polonium-210 murder. Assassination by poisoning evokes the great classical era of raison d'etat rubouts by the Borgias and the Medicis. But the futurist twist of (to quote Peter D. Zimmerman in The Wall Street Journal) the first reported radiological assassination in history adds an element of the baroque of which a world-class thug outfit such as the KGB (now given new initials) should be proud.
Some say that the Litvinenko murder was so obvious, so bold, so messy -- five airplanes contaminated, 30,000 people alerted, dozens of places in London radioactive -- that it could not have possibly been the KGB.
But that's the beauty of it. Do it obvious, do it brazen, and count on those too-clever-by-half Westerners to find that exonerating. As the president of the Central Anarchist Council (in G.K. Chesterton's ``The Man Who Was Thursday'') advised: ``You want a safe disguise, do you? ... A dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb? Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!''
The other reason for making it obvious and brazen is to send a message. This is a warning to all the future Litvinenkos of what awaits them if they continue to go after the Russian government. They'll get you even in London where there is the rule of law. And they'll get you even if it makes negative headlines for a month.
Some people say that the KGB would not have gone to such great lengths to get so small a fry as Litvinenko. Well, he might have been a small fry but his investigations were not. He was looking into the Kremlin roots of Politkovskaya's shooting. And Litvinenko claimed that the Russian government itself blew up apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999, killing hundreds of innocent civilians, in order to blame it on the Chechens and provoke the second Chechen war. Pretty damning stuff.
But even Litvinenko's personal smallness serves the KGB's purposes precisely. If they go to such lengths and such messiness and such risk to kill someone as small as Litvinenko, then no critic of the Putin dictatorship is safe. It is the ultimate in deterrence.
The prosecution rests. We await definitive confirmation in Putin's memoirs. Working title: ``If I Did It.''
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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