If the North Korean government is in fact behind the hacking of Sony and the threats of violence directed against theaters that planned to show The Interview, then the United States has been a victim of warfare directed against our most basic right—free expression. Those who hacked and threatened violence succeeded in doing something the U.S. government could not do: namely censor a movie based on its content.
North Korea’s apparent victory over this film is but a coming attraction of things to come. If hacking and threats can shut down a poorly reviewed comedy, they can also shut down newspapers, magazines, television stations, and other media. This then was the Pearl Harbor of a war that is just beginning.
Like all wars, there were preludes. The prelude for this one came in an unlikely location: Yale University. Several years ago, the Yale University Press published a book on the controversy surrounding the cartoons of Mohammad that had appeared in several Scandinavian newspapers and provoked violent responses. Naturally, the book, as submitted, included the cartoons that were at the center of the dispute. But Yale University Press decided to censor these cartoons out of fear that their inclusion might endanger the lives of Yale students and faculty. Yale’s understandable decision set an unfortunate precedent that has now been followed by Sony and by the theaters that pressured Sony into canceling The Interview.
There is no simple solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, terrorists cannot be allowed to succeed in their censorial goals by hacking and threatening. On the other hand, responsible institutions must do everything in their power to protect their employees, their students, and the general public. It is precisely the object of the terrorists to create this dilemma, knowing that democracies will generally err on the sides of caution and protection.
In one sense, this dilemma is not unlike those faced by democracies that must decide whether to pay ransom to ISIS and other terrorists groups in order to prevent their citizens from being beheaded. There is no perfect solution to either dilemma. But there are steps that can be taken both by our government and by the private sector to confront these attacks on our liberty.
Our government must respond strongly, but it is constrained by North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. This should be an object lesson for how important it is to America, and to the rest of the world, to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran too is a cyber-superpower, as well as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. A nuclear Iran would stop at nothing to censor anything it found offensive to its radical brand of Islam. It may be too late to stop North Korea from flexing its nuclear muscles, but it is not too late to stop Iran from becoming the world’s most powerful censor.
The response of the private sector can be much stronger as well. When Islamic extremists directed threats were made against Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, several leading publishing companies agreed to publish the book jointly in a show of solidarity against censorial threats. Although Rushdie had to live in hiding for several years, as the result fatwa issued against him by Iran’s supreme leader, freedom of speech prevailed and his book was published and widely read. In the Sony case, there was no such collective support. Nor did Sony itself do everything it could to strike a proper balance between caution and artistic freedom. It should have offered the film free on the Internet so that millions of people around the world could choose to see what North Korea didn’t want them to see. They can still do this, thus showing the North Korean’s leaders that private companies have ways to fight back. Such an action would not eliminate all risks, but it would remove movie theaters in malls as soft and highly visible targets.
None of these proposals offer perfect solutions to an intractable dilemma that will only get worse if we simply capitulate to the censorial terrorists.
Professor Alan Dershowitz’s latest book is Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.