An Appalling Act of Cowardice

Unbelievable:

With theater chains defecting en masse, Sony Pictures Entertainment has pulled the planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview.”

U.S. officials have reportedly linked a massive cyber attack against Sony to North Korea, which is at the center of the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy.

“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,” Sony said in a statement. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

[. . .]

Tuesday’s message accompanied another data dump. It threatened violence on theaters that showed “The Interview” and people who attend screenings.

“The world will be full of fear,” the message reads. “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.)”

In response, exhibition industry lobbying arm the National Association of Theatre Owners said its members must decide individually whether to release the picture and Sony said it would respect theater owners’ decision not to exhibit “The Interview.” That set off a cascade of cancellations.

The bulk of the country’s 10 largest theater chains — a group that includes AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Carmike and Southern Theatres — announced they would delay showing the picture or would drop it altogether. In statements, many of the theater chains suggested that Sony’s lack of confidence in the film prompted their decision.

Let’s be clear about this: An anonymous hacker group has successfully intimidated Sony and hundreds of American movie theaters into refusing to show the film. I struggle in vain to think of any comparable act of mass cowardice–especially one that occurred in the United States. Charles C.W. Cooke is quite right:

As far as anybody can tell, [the hackers’ threat] 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?

Eugene Volokh is quite right as well:

I sympathize with the theaters’ situation — they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.

But behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, extremist Islam generally or any other country or religion will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.

And the beauty of all this, from the perspective of those who want to suppress movies they dislike, is that they don’t even actually have to bomb anything (something that’s very risky). All they need to do is put out some well-anonymized threats, and they have a good chance of prevailing. To be sure, it helps if they can back up the threats with something (such as a successful hacking attack), but the threats might succeed even without that. If terrorist threats worked with “The Interview,” even despite DHS’s statements that there’s no credible intelligence supporting a risk of actual violence, they might well work elsewhere as well. That, I think, is the lesson that many will take away.

The entire United States has been made subject to a hecklers’ veto. And the hecklers won. To say that this isn’t a proud day in the nation’s history is to understand matters severely.

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