Politics & Policy

The U.S. Bows Down to a Group of Anonymous Norks

James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview (Sony Pictures)
Liberty is a mindset, and we’re losing it.

A group of North Korean hackers is holding the American film industry hostage, and the American film industry is helping them along. So, at least, reports the BBC this afternoon:

The New York premiere of The Interview, a comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s president, has been cancelled amid threats from hackers.

A spokesman for the cinema chain due to host the screening said it had been shelved.

Hackers targeting Sony Pictures had threatened to attack US cinemas showing the studio’s film.

This threat came in the form of a sub-literate e-mail, the provenance of which, it seems, was the North Korean hacker group “Guardians of the Peace.” In the missive, the group warns that anybody who goes to see The Interview should expect to be killed. “Remember the 11th of September 2001,” they caution. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)” Soon, they promise, “all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made” and “the world will be full of fear.” And then? Well, then “all the world will denounce the SONY.” For their efforts, the outfit was praised by the government in Pyongyang.

As far as anybody can tell, this all seems to be so much guff. “At this time,” the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed, “there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.” Nor, for that matter, have the police departments of New York City and Los Angeles heard anything concrete. And yet, despite the lack of any tangible hazards whatsoever, the powers-that-be have elected to play it safe. First, Sony Pictures, which produced the film, canceled tomorrow’s inaugural showing. (“Security concerns,” natch.) Then the Carmike Cinemas chain, which owns 278 theaters in 41 states, announced that it would not be showing it at all. In the last few hours, the Hollywood Reporter has suggested, the other four giants of American cinema — Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, and Cineplex Entertainment — elected to join in the boycott. And, finally, the studio pulled the December 25 release entirely. Perhaps Sony hopes to be “denounced” after all?

Arguendo, let us suppose that the e-mail does, in fact, contain a genuine threat. Would a resolute and free people not ask, “So what?” So the buggers denounce our films? So they issue threats against our theaters? So they are sufficiently delusional to try to instill “fear” into the United States? We are talking here, as Michael Moynihan noted this morning, about “a country that subsists on bugs and grass” — a ridiculous, farcical, anemic shell-nation that, as unconscionably ghastly as it can be to its own people, is unlikely to achieve much in the United States besides the prompting of unalloyed hilarity. Not only does North Korea sit 6,000 miles away from California and 9,000 miles away from New York City, but its contributions to the world of technology and transportation are known primarily for their backwardness. Hackers are hackers, and while they are using their talents to wreak havoc on the Internet, they are to be taken seriously wherever they reside. But there is little reason to believe they are capable of wreaking havoc outside the digital world. Do we imagine, perhaps, that moviegoers in Chicago are likely to be faced with the Blitz?

No. How grotesque it is, then, to see businesses in the United States reacting so cravenly to what appears to be little more than a glorified letter of complaint. Is this now to be how America works? If so — if the friends of a campy two-bit dictatorship can force us to put our tails between our legs and ask not to be thrown into the briar patch — then one can only wonder how we might expect to stand up to our more competent foes. Will we perhaps start pulling books critical of the Iranian leaders, the better to protect Barnes and Noble from incoming Molotov cocktails? Will we remove websites that satirize the Chinese Communist party in order to forestall denial-of-service attacks on their hosts? Will we shut down newspapers that print broadsides against the Putin regime, lest his online buddies send a few death threats our way? I would certainly hope not. Rather, I would hope that we recognize that freedom of expression is the most vital of all our civic virtues, and that no good whatsoever can come of according a heckler’s veto to hackers, to family crime syndicates, and to their nasty little enablers on the international stage. If the right of a free people to associate and to speak as they wish is not deemed by civil society as worthy of fighting for, what exactly is?

Sadly, one cannot help but see in this response some faint echoes of another, disheartening development: to wit, our present tendency to accommodate the thin-skinned and the intolerant and to permit their professed discomfort to interfere with our public debate. As much as it is anything else, liberty is a mindset, and the more reflexively we take seriously the complaints of the terminally silly, the less habitually we should expect to see resolve in the face of bullying. In our schools, in the media, and in all of our political arenas, we have of late become accustomed to kowtowing to hecklers, to fleeing from anything controversial, and to treating the outrage du jour as if it were representative of anything more substantial than rank self-indulgence and the desire to silence dissent. Before a people can be cajoled by the fear of reprisal into canceling a work of art, they must first have been familiarized with the process.

Well, we are now well and truly familiarized. We are now fluent in the language of abatement and apology, and we have our “this event has been called off” letters primed and ready for almost any occasion. If today you are embarrassed by Hollywood’s ludicrous pusillanimity, perhaps take a moment to wonder how it was that we got here in the first place, for it seems clear now that these cancellations are not a fluke or an anomaly, but instead the wages of appeasement and under-confidence. Will this be the humiliation that finally wake us up? Unlikely, I’m afraid.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated to note the fact that Sony has now pulled the release entirely.

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