The terrorists (they are no longer just hackers) who call themselves The Guardians of Peace (and are likely backed by the North Korean government) wanted “The Interview” dead, and now it is dead.
At least for now.
Losing stinks, and there’s no doubt that with Sony’s decision to cancel the release of the R-rated comedy that America lost this round. Free speech lost this round. Free expression lost this round.
Not the war, the round.
The terrorists won this one, though, and won big. Yes, it sets a precedent for other terrorists. Yes, that’s a disturbing and frightening thing.
There is no upside to this. That doesn’t mean, though, that Sony did anything wrong. Faced with an impossible choice, Sony made the only choice it could.
The threat from these terrorists cannot be taken lightly. The Guardians of Peace have already proven themselves sophisticated, resourceful, determined, and ruthless. While the hack itself is impressive, the rollout of the information through the news and entertainment media has been equally so. On top of stealing all that data, the terrorists have undoubtedly thought well beyond that. The terrorists are playing chess with Sony, and as of now they are winning.
You don’t trifle with people like that. You take them seriously, and when it comes to terrorist threats it would be reckless not to take them at their word.
How savvy are these terrorists? The fact that in the media Sony has taken more heat over these emails than the criminals who stole them speaks volumes. Therefore, it is not absurd to assume the terrorists had a plan to somehow cause chaos in some or all theatres screening “The Interview.”
How hard would it be to call in bomb threats to every theater during every screening?
How hard would it be to hack into these theatres to set off smoke and fire alarms?
According to Homeland Security, there is no chatter or intelligence to back up the threat of a 9/11-style attack against movie theatres and innocent patrons. But that’s of little comfort in this era of lone wolf terrorists who act all on their own motivated only by inspiration and a sick desire for fame.
THE TERRORISTS WON BEFORE SONY PULLED THE MOVIE
By the time Sony decided to pull “The Interview” from its Christmas Day release, the terrorists had already won.
The decision made by almost every major theatre chain to not exhibit the comedy had already ensured that win. If Sony went ahead anyway, its (estimated) $200 million investment was doomed financially. The terrorists would have loved that. That’s not winning a round, that’s winning the war.
By retreating, Sony might live to fight another day. As of now, Sony isn’t saying what it ultimately intends to do with “The Interview,” and probably doesn’t yet know. Thanks to a humiliating but wise decision to retreat, what would have been damaged goods and a total loss is still a viable product.
The movie could still be a hit. The terrorists could still lose the war.
DEFIANCE AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHERS
Believe it or not, not everyone in America watches the news and knows what’s going on in the world. Especially young people. To those of us whose lives match the rhythm of the news cycle that might be unfathomable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
What that does mean is that if Sony and these theatre chains had decided to be defiant in the face of these terrorist threats, not everyone who attended a screening of “The Interview” would have done so knowing the risks. And what if that person is the one person injured or killed in the one successful terror attack on Christmas Day?
Naturally, we all want the opportunity to see “The Interview” on Christmas Day in order to stick a finger in the eye of these monsters. We’re Americans. That’s who we are. But we would do so understanding the risk. It’s not a small point, though, that in asking for that opportunity we are exposing people to that risk who wouldn’t know they are taking that risk.
And what about the theatre employees who may need the hours but would prefer not to take the risk?
What about the innocent people attending other movies — what if they are somehow injured or killed?
Is that really the right thing to do?
With the Danish Muhammad cartoon blowback in 2006, we saw art result in terrible violence. That doesn’t mean we stop making art. It does mean, though, that the risk is real and that those taking the risk should know they are taking the risk.
If one person were hurt or killed Christmas Day in any kind of terror attack, the financial liability would be incalculable. I did my best above to explain the moral liability. Now imagine the financial lawsuits against Sony and the theatre chains even if with the best of intentions — defying terrorists — they gambled and lost.
Right and wrong seldom has anything to do with Tort law. There’s just no question that trial lawyers will be lining up everywhere if someone gets hurt after a multi-national corporation ignores a terrorist threat from an adversary that’s already proven itself formidable.
Just the expense of winning those lawsuits could be financially devastating.
ADDITIONAL SECURITY ISN’T A SOLUTION
Sure, Sony and theatre owners could pay for additional security and metal detectors. What defense is that, though, against someone who thinks he’s pulling a prank by yelling “Fire!” after some stranger paid him $100 outside the theater?
What defense is that against a pulled fire alarm or bomb threats?
CANCELLATIONS OCCURRED AFTER 9/11
After 9/11, among other things, America postponed sporting events and cancelled outright three days of airline travel. We were hit in a way no one imagined and before we could get back up we had to figure out how to ensure public safety.
Never before have we seen a terrorist attack like this one against Sony. There are no protocols, no safety mechanisms, no infrastructure for this. This is unprecedented territory. Sony has nothing to fall back on other than to not risk innocent life and corporate liability.
American bravado is a beautiful thing, but Sony is flying blind here and had no other choice but to retreat until they could figure things out.
IT’S THE GOVERNMENT’S JOB TO PROTECT ARTISTIC EXPRESS, NOT SONY’S
The federal government’s primary responsibility is to keep us safe and to protect our freedoms. Protocols need to be put into place so that this can’t happen again. At all costs, freedom of expression must be protected from terrorists and foreign governments.
Once the government has done its job, only then will it be morally necessary for Sony and Hollywood to push back hard against North Korea — hopefully with withering, brutal, and devastating satire.
Retreat is sometimes a tactical necessity. Today, Sony deserves the benefit of the doubt.
We’ll know soon enough if Hollywood and Sony are cowards.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC