This USA Today headline and story reflect the media's uneven approach to characterizing terrorist leaders.
This USA Today headline and story reflect the media’s uneven approach to characterizing terrorist leaders.

Working with my middle school-aged children on their homework, I am reminded of the need to use synonyms in order to spice up communication. Do we go with “provided” or “offered”? How about “reflects” or “illustrates”?

These variations in word choice are benign, designed to break up monotony.

But not all alternative word choices are so innocuous.

Take, for example, the current state of media coverage of terrorism and its ill-chosen use of the word “mastermind” to refer to the individual who is deemed to be most responsible for a particular act, or series of acts, of terrorism.

We would never let the media get away with calling a serial killer “a murderous marvel.” That’s a complimentary term for heinous behavior.

Yet, much too often, we see and hear “mastermind” in connection with terrorist activity that murders people in the double, triple, or, God forbid, quadruple digits as in the 9/11 attacks.

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we know what “mastermind” actually is intended to mean. As a noun: “a highly intelligent person, especially one who plans and directs a complex or difficult project.” As a verb: “to direct, plan, or supervise (a project or activity).”

Granted, when used as a verb, “mastermind” isn’t nearly as objectionable in reference to terroristic thugs. But it can quickly veer into noun usage—essentially conferring on the individual a title that brims with respect and esteem. Surely the media can—and must—do better than invoking such an ill-fitting word to describe one of modern times’ foremost ills.

A small sampling of the alternative terms that would aptly convey someone’s instrumental role in perpetrating atrocities without needlessly and heedlessly stroking their ego: ringleader, organizer, architect, engineer.

Interestingly, some media accounts run the table when it comes to these terms. A recent USA Today headline used “ringleader” but began the story thusly: “The mastermind of the Paris terrorist attacks died….”

In short, words matter. Let’s reserve “mastermind” for those times when someone displaying the mastery is doing something creative and beneficial for mankind. When you think about it, doing so really does not constitute “a complex or difficult project.”

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