The decision by Sony Pictures to cancel the Christmas Day opening of “The Interview,” a raunchy comedy in which two American journalists try to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has brought the company in for some hard knocks. The Wall Street Journal warned that the cancellation “will set a precedent for further bullying of a notably weak-kneed industry.”
Well, let’s slow down a minute. Sony is a for-profit business. Once theater owners jumped ship after hackers connected to North Korea promised to attack multiplexes that showed the film, Sony didn’t have much choice.
It’s all very well to point out that computer hackers are rarely violent, or that North Korea doesn’t want a shooting war with the United States.
In a poll conducted in September by the Pew Research Center, respondents by 50 to 35 percent said that the U.S. government has not gone far enough in protecting the country against terrorism. In the same survey, 62 percent reported themselves “very concerned” about the spread of Islamic extremism in the world, and 53 percent expressed similar concerns about what’s happening domestically.
Friends on the left often dismiss such surveys as colored by irrational fear. But this criticism is uncharitable. Rational people can review the same evidence and reach different conclusions. Given the current state of the world, worry about personal security is an entirely reasonable response.
Consider last week’s attack on a Peshawar school by the Pakistani Taliban. More than 140 people died, the great majority of them children. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, one Lebanon-based terrorism expert said: “Unfortunately, such violence gets them money, support and recruits from throughout the world.”
If this hellish contest for martyrs remains fierce, the top prize may well go to the group that can find a way past all the barriers and strike spectacularly at the U.S. homeland.
Few experts think the groups possess the capacity to strike here, but that may be beside the point. Terrorism is like any other market. Players over time will innovate to stay ahead of the competition.
Against this backdrop, it’s perfectly rational to be afraid.
All of which brings us back to “The Interview.” Despite all the calls for Sony to stand up to the blackmail in the name of artistic freedom, it seems to me that the criticism is misdirected.
Nothing will detect and respond to the reality of fear as swiftly as a market, and here the market has spoken. Theater owners are guessing that with “The Interview” in their multiplexes, holiday audiences will stay away in droves. From everything.
I’d like to think the owners are mistaken. I’d like to think that were “The Interview” in the theaters, millions of us would flock to the multiplex and watch a movie – any movie – as an act of protest, to show the world we aren’t afraid. But I can’t say that in predicting the opposite the theater owners have made a wrong call.
Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University.