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Terror in the Aisles

HBO's documentary on the Moscow theater hostage crisis is disturbing, wrenching, and definitely worth watching.

7:30 AM, Oct 23, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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At around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, as the hostages and some of the terrorists slept, a gray mist descended from the ceiling vents. One man remembered "a hissing sound and a curious, acrid smell." It was an anesthetic aerosol that was intended to render everyone inside unconscious. "It was like being stoned," said another man. But a number of terrorists realized what was happening and began shooting at the windows for ventilation. (Luckily, no one gave the order to detonate the explosives scattered throughout the theater.) Minutes later, the Alpha team launched its assault. There was no intention to take prisoners. The male Chechens were gunned down in the halls. Barayev was still alive when the Alpha team found him and finished the job. (Footage of the dead rebels is the most graphic segment of the film.) The female terrorists were asleep in their seats when the commandos stormed the aisles, shooting them on the spot.

Remarkably, not a single commando or hostage was killed in the rescue. But in the aftermath, as their unconscious bodies were being laid out on the pavement outside the theater, the operation went bad. Although there was enough antidote to the gas, there weren't enough physicians to dispense it. Many bodies were placed on their backs, people choked--either on their tongues or their vomit. In total, 129 hostages died. What was to be heralded as a flawless counterterrorist operation turned into a tragedy.

"THE WAY RUSSIA FIGHTS these terrorists does not serve their intentions," says Michael McFaul, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of "Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin." McFaul described the operation as "Soviet in style." Yes, both the United States and Russia face a common enemy in radical Islam, "but look at Baghdad and look at Grozny. This would never happen in a democracy."

"Terror in Moscow" airs tonight on HBO at 7:00 p.m.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.