What if Golden Age Hollywood were like today’s Tinsel Town?
Charlie Chaplin would never have made The Great Dictator. Hitler’s threats would have led to it being pulled from circulation; one of the greatest anti-Nazi propaganda pieces would never have seen the light of day just before we went to war.
Sony Pictures has now confirmed that it is canceling the Christmas release of The Interview, a comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, due to North Korean–directed threats against theaters. The majority of America’s main theater-chain owners caved to the outrageous and unrealistic warnings from a hitherto unknown group called “Guardians of Peace.” Not since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses has the West so cravenly surrendered to intellectual terrorism.
And now, American business finds itself on the front lines.
The U.S. government has confirmed that North Korea is behind the attacks that have crippled Sony Pictures. For the past week, Sony’s internal computer systems have been ripped apart, with e-mails, financial details, film copies, and scripts tossed across the Internet. With that, an impoverished nation run by the most isolated regime on earth has made the gigantic American entertainment industry cower.
The truth is, we’ve been heading this way for a long time, starting with our response to Islamist assaults on those whom they believe blaspheme Mohammed. Now, we’re moving to another level.
The Kim-family regime in North Korea, now run by third-generation owner Kim Jong Un, is more or less a mafia that happens to rule a state. Next to Iran, North Korea is the world’s largest purveyor of state-sponsored terrorism. It traffics staggering levels of fake American dollars, tobacco, drugs, and of course, nuclear technology. It has tied down 30,000 U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula for years, and given China a perfect foil to use against U.S. interests in Asia. It has kidnapped Japanese citizens from their homes and sunk South Korean naval ships.
Yet this week was Pyongyang’s biggest coup so far. The multi-billion dollar U.S. entertainment industry has been brought to a shuddering halt by a government whose oppressed people might as well live in the Middle Ages.
Every terrorist organization and disruptive state will be looking on with envy at the North Korean victory and hastily scribbling notes.
A new type of asymmetric warfare, threatening the free flow of ideas (no matter how stupid) strikes at the core of Western liberties. There are innumerable ways in which copycat hostage takers can emulate North Korea, since everything today can be done from the shadows.
An academic conference on Chinese suppression of Tibet or Xinjiang separatists? Threaten to blow up the auditorium. A book exposing Vladimir Putin’s Mafioso approach to government? Blackmail the publisher with pictures of his children. What about a university that offers classes on North Korea? Take down its computers, destroy its academic records. A chain that opens up stores in an enemy of Iran? Sabotage its logistics, threaten to poison its products.
How about the producers of intellectual content in this brave new world? Expect more self-censorship — if Hollywood’s A-listers think they may be blown up for poking fun at the villains.
James Franco has been photographed accompanied by large new bodyguards already. Would Theo van Gogh, shot by an Islamist several years ago for his work, have told the truth if he knew what lay ahead? Knowing what his fate was? Let’s hope he would have.
Yet how many voices will be silenced by that fear: You know what? It’s really just not that worth it.
There has not yet been any type of government thinking about this type of threat, what the response should be, or how the free flow of ideas can be managed in a world of constant cyberwarfare.
The shadows of the cyberworld reveal more opportunity for mischief and evildoing every day. They are the ultimate badlands, but, like the train carrying in the ruthless gang in High Noon, they matter only as much as we give up our safety and security to them.
America’s entertainment industry has surrendered in the badlands’ first public battle. That choice ensures that there are many more to come.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.