WASHINGTON, December 17, 2014 — In the face of threats from a group of hackers, “Sony Pictures decided to withdraw its movie, “The Interview,” from scheduled theatrical release on December 25.
The hackers, who call themselves the “Guardians of Peace,” launched a sophisticated and destructive attack against Sony, stealing large amounts of data from Sony computers and wiping their storage. The nature of the attack, and the demands of the hackers, implicate the government of North Korea, though it seems likely that they had help from inside Sony. Since the attack, the hackers have released numerous emails from Sony executives which have been hugely embarrassing to the company and created a public relations disaster.
More seriously, a recent message from the group threatened serious consequences if theaters showed the film, saying, “the world will be full of fear.” It continued, “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”
The nation’s largest theater chains decided not to show the film, and today Sony said that it would not release the film “in light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film.” The Sony statement went on, “We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
However, Sony is backing away from free expression, as are the theater chains.
“The Interview” was unlikely to be a holiday blockbuster, and the threat of violence would have kept movie viewers away from theaters over Christmas, and not just from “The Interview.” It is not the business of business owners to be brave, but to protect the business and respond to consumer demands; still, the rational decision to suppress the film leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
“Standing by our filmmakers” and the “right to free expression” is meaningless when we cower before threats, especially from the likes of North Korea. The response of Sony and the theater chains has been rational, responsible — and craven.
The response of our government remains to be seen, but if it does not retaliate against the parties responsible in as public a manner as they did their damage and issued their threats, the effect will be to leave America and American business open to a new round of intimidation. There is concern in Washington and in Japan, the home of Sony, that a response will escalate the situation and put diplomacy and lives at risk.
It may, but failure to respond is itself a response, and it will also put diplomacy and lives at risk.
It will put lives at risk by letting thugs believe that they can act with impunity, and so they will act, and act again. It will put diplomacy at risk because it will be clear that there is no resolution and no courage behind ours. Diplomacy does not require fear or the threat of force, but if there is no threat of force, it does require mutual respect. North Korea clearly does not respect the United States or Japan. Diplomacy with North Korea is therefor pointless unless we instill in them some healthy fear.
But the fear appears to all be in Tokyo, in Washington, and in Hollywood. There is an old story about the various body parts arguing about who has the most important role. The brain claims superiority because it thinks for the body; the heart claims superiority because it powers the body; and on and on. Then they get to the anus, which explains to their horror that it can humble them all.
A nasty little brat sits like a nasty bit of detritus at the sphincter of the world, self-important and threatening to shut the whole thing down. And indeed, those nasty bits can cause a nasty case of sepsis if not wiped and flushed away.
That situation is intolerable, and the cost of not dealing with it may be the silencing of free expression in America. I’ll be grateful this Christmas that Sony has spared me the obligation to watch what looks like a bad movie, but we should all be dismayed that it was really a band of criminals, probably supported by the most loathsome state in the world, that made that decision for us.