By Stephen Carter
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. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted, "America has lost its first cyberwar." The Wall Street Journal warned the cancellation "will set a precedent for further bullying of a notably weak-kneed industry."
Let's slow down a minute. Sony is a for-profit business. The film division hasn't had a lot of hits lately, and the parent company has had only one profitable year in the past seven. Once theater owners jumped ship after hackers connected to North Korea promised to attack multiplexes showing the film, Sony didn't have much choice.
It's all very well for the Department of Homeland Security to announce, with a suspicious alacrity, that the threats aren't credible. 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 percent to 35 percent said that the U.S. government has not gone far enough in protecting the country against terrorism; 62 percent were "very concerned" about the spread of Islamic extremism in the world, and 53 percent expressed similar concerns about what's happening domestically.
Small wonder, then, that even after last week's report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, strong majorities of Americans have said they favor the use of enhanced interrogation techniques to seek information from terror suspects. The oft-predicted nationwide backlash against tough anti-terror policies hasn't materialized.
Friends on the left often dismiss such surveys as colored by irrational fear. But this criticism is uncharitable. 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. The Pakistani Taliban proudly distributed photographs of the attackers. One might suppose that an attack in Peshawar, no matter how horrific, betokens nothing for the U.S. But this misapprehends the competition among terror groups for public attention. One Lebanon-based terrorism expert said: "Unfortunately, such violence gets them money, support, and recruits from throughout the world."
This is exactly how the so-called market for martyrs works: There is competition on the demand side for the limited supply of those willing to fight and die for the cause. And the continued existence of the market, despite the best efforts of two U.S. administrations using various tools to destroy it, provides a perfectly rational reason for worry.
In the market model of terrorism, groups compete fiercely for resources and reputation. The ones that can stage the most spectacular attacks tend to come out on top. Not so long ago, al-Qaida ruled. More recently, Islamic State and Boko Haram have been fighting over which is the more dazzlingly brutal. The Peshawar attack is part of the effort by the Pakistani Taliban to join the big leagues.
If this hellish contest remains fierce, the top prize may well go to the group that can find a way to strike spectacularly at the U.S. homeland. We're the No. 1 attraction, and have been for a long while. As the Senate report notes, in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida was planning additional assaults in the U.S. Ironically, our considerable efforts to harden our defenses might make us a more attractive target. It's no accident that both Boko Haram and Islamic State have issued repeated threats against the U.S.
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. The day is bound to come when the terror groups decide that swagger alone won't be enough to keep them on top. That's the day they begin planning in earnest.
Against this backdrop, it's perfectly rational to be afraid. Those who don't share the fear should at least concede the reasonableness of those who do.
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. The market has spoken. The relevant market actors are moviegoers. Theater owners are guessing that with "The Interview" in their multiplexes, holiday audiences will stay away. From everything.
I'd like to think the owners are mistaken. I'd like to think that were The Interview in the theaters, millions would flock to 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. And if they're right, so is Sony.
Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University.