Those ‘brilliant’ terrorists

Why isn’t the “war on terror” going better, people ask? I’m not convinced things are that bad, even in Iraq. What were they expecting? But one problem I have recently discovered is that the terrorists are way smarter than us. I learned by reading newspapers that, especially in the London bombings, those plotting mayhem against us are so brilliant we need a special word to describe it. They are “masterminds.” Hang on. Aren’t these the clowns who couldn’t set off the second series of bombs, and from the heart of dawkness made cellphone calls that gave them away? Weren’t some in the first wave apparently duped into believing there’d be time to escape, only to set the “timer” and go boom? Never mind.

You see, in reading the newspapers I encountered headlines like “Police seek terror mastermind” and “Police on hunt for mastermind of bombings” “Suspected bomb mastermind arrested” said another. “Bombing mastermind probably long gone before attack began” warned a fourth. And “Suspected mastermind held in Zambia,” about how 20 careless cellphone calls got this particular genius nabbed. An earlier Citizen story said an Indonesian “who the U.S. says is a terror mastermind in Southeast Asia, has been in prison since 2002.” Doesn’t it lower the bar a bit if you end up behind a set of them?

I’m not quite sure how you get this designation. When I was a kid, I dimly recall “Mastermind” as a board game whose box showed a goateed, suave uber-nerd with exactly the sort of gorgeous woman on his arm you don’t attract through such hobbies. But I had the distinct impression in real life you had to ace the Mensa exam or show James Bond around your secret super-complex or something.

Perhaps standards are different elsewhere, as a Tuesday paper informed me the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was also one. Hey, if I’d been born on top of that much oil, I’d look smart and sexy too. I know what Napoleon said about generals who were lucky, but it didn’t include “mastermind” (or “maitre-esprit”).

Napoleon might actually qualify, despite ignoring one of history’s key lessons (don’t march on Moscow). But I always thought masterminds were comparatively rare.

In their use of the term, the newspapers of my youth were, for once, not liberal. I also don’t recall George W. Bush being, knowing, or arguably having met any (except John Kerry -- until we saw his college transcripts.) But hey. That dead guy in the cave? A mastermind. That shirtless slob being handcuffed by bobbies? His friend in the next cell? All masterminds. In fact, so’s his cat.

I have the slightly neurotic habit of taking extensive notes from newspapers, magazines and books so I won’t remember what I expected or wanted to read instead of what I did. I was not on the lookout for this particular term until recently, arguably as it was not so frequent as to be remarkable. So a massive search of newspaper databases would give a more scientific result. But a sweep of my hard drive found 63 instances of the term, and in 50 of those cases (79 per cent of the world’s great thinkers!) it was applied to terrorists. Bummer, huh?

Some might think the club has doubtful standards. In addition to King Fahd and one sardonic use, the non-terrorist masterminds in my notes included WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers, whoever it was who tried to get Pope John Paul II assassinated, some busted armed robber in Ontario, a guy who printed way too many rubles in 1990, Lyndon Johnson (by Soviet diplomats who thought he had arranged JFK’s assassination), some U.S. school prankster, the U.S. (by Chinese officials who blamed it for Tiananmen), the guy behind the Medak offensive, some American robbers who got caught, Uday Hussein, the point man on Zimbabwe’s farm invasions, a guy executed for corruption in China, Guatamala’s Efrain Rios Montt, general Vo Nguyen Giap and a Greek politician acquitted of embezzlement.

Now some of you may be about to suggest the press are just a tiny bit lazy in their choice of metaphors, that this overuse of “mastermind” is due less to their prevalence among mad bombers than to their rarity in newsrooms. Others may think they are subtly conveying a sense of futility in the West’s struggle with its foes. Not me.

Every third terrorist has an IQ of 160, and George Bush is, to quote that mastermind Dr. No, “just another stupid policeman.” I’m convinced the only reason they haven’t blown us all away is they have so many brilliant schemes for defeating us, and such profound debates about them, that they’re suffering paralysis through analysis. It must be true; it’s in the newspapers.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson