Editor's Letter: Some perspective on the word "mastermind"

Why are we calling thugs, zealots, and swindlers masterminds?

It seems we live in an age of genius. From Rwanda to Lahore, and from the Khyber Pass to the canyons of Wall Street, “masterminds” animate the news. In Pakistan, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi is alleged to be the “mastermind” behind November’s rampage in Mumbai, in which men with guns shot people without them. Osama bin Laden is similarly described as a “mastermind” of 9/11, in which airplanes were crashed into buildings. Prosecutors in The Hague call a former army colonel a “mastermind” of genocide in Rwanda, where the basic principle of 9/11 and Mumbai—butchering the defenseless—was applied wholesale. And in a less bloody variation on this hackneyed theme, New York money manager Bernard Madoff is said to be the “mastermind” of a $50 billion scam.

For a newfound perspective on all this, I credit the hoary spy film my family and I watched over the holidays. James Bond’s nemesis, Dr. No, had developed powerful lasers capable of thwarting the U.S. space program. No’s fantastically sophisticated lab, hidden on his (naturally) private island, contained a nuclear reactor, presumably homemade. As a measure of the evil doctor’s broad talents, an ingeniously engineered fish tank adorned his space-age, submarine dining room. Compared to this fictional mastermind, our real-world pretenders are a crude bunch. Madoff operated with one of the bluntest instruments—a Ponzi scheme—in the fixer’s kit. And though rigorous planning went into 9/11, the Mumbai assault, and mass murder in Rwanda, how much true genius is required to kill unarmed civilians in surprise attacks? A garden-variety sociopath could manage. Thugs and zealots and spectacularly greedy swindlers—those we’ve got in spades. But masterminds? No.

Francis Wilkinson

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