Emerging from Chalmers Johnson’s piece in Foreign Policy entitled “Blowback” is a unique definition of terrorism, differing from any discussed previously in Bruce Hoffman’s “Inside Terrorism.” In a rather offhand manner, Johnson points out that terrorism “strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable.” He proceeds to discuss the manner in which the imperialist policies of the United States remove all options apart from terrorism for our militarized opponents.
For much terrorist activity, this definition serves quite well. The United States has undoubtedly been the root of much terrorist activity against itself. However, while helpful in some respects, I do not think the definition works comprehensively because not every act of terrorism has a correlative “sin” from the recipient of the terrorist act. Every act of terrorism cannot be explained by a simple cause and effect relationship in which an act from an “invulnerable” power produces a response from one amongst those sinned against. To define terrorism in those terms is to inherently implicate the recipient of the terrorist act. Though the United States undoubtedly implicates itself in much of its activity abroad, Johnson’s oversimplified definition ignores any acts of pure aggression on the part of a terrorist organization. Perhaps in reality those acts are rare, but they certainly are not nonexistent.
The reality is that terrorism is not either the product of imperialism or the independent acts of terrorist groups against innocent states; rather, terrorism is much more often both/and. Defining terrorism in either respect oversimplifies what is always a remarkably complex mixture of origins and motivations.