The dust-up between Sony Pictures and North Korea gets more bizarre and complicated by the day, opening once unimagined scenarios of a foreign government resorting to information-hacking to retaliate against perceived offenses by a private business.
A movie studio cancels its film release to avoid more embarrassing leaks of its information, and a Japanese-owned corporation with a large American presence gets thrust into a foreign policy role. The studio’s decision gets criticized by the U.S. president, who says he should have been consulted. Our government may have retaliated by cutting off North Korea’s Internet access Monday night. And now Sony Pictures got theaters to rebook “The Interview” and screen it Christmas Day, and is streaming the movie on several platforms.
So what have we learned?
It would be deplorable if North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un did, in fact, cyber-hack Sony Pictures in retaliation for a fictitious film about a U.S. assassination plot against him. It would also establish embarrassment-causing cyber sabotage as an alternative to bullets and drones to settle disputes. As a nation that draws strength from its freedoms, we can’t tailor cultural offerings to what is least likely to give offense, so it’s not surprising the dominant public reaction seems to be that we shouldn’t capitulate to blackmail or threats. But if all we take away from this is to retaliate in kind, think as deviously, be as defiant or just learn better cybersecurity, we’re missing a key point.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Kim Jong Un is a thin-skinned despot determined to show he won’t be mocked or humiliated. His government doesn’t just block its people’s access to information and deny their freedom of thought, speech, religion and association. It also detains, tortures and “disappears” dissidents, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council. (There are an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners.) It creates starvation by taking food away from those in need and uses it to reward other groups. It uses propaganda to “incite nationalistic hatred towards official enemies of the state,” including Japan and the U.S. And North Korea has nuclear and possibly chemical and biological weapons capabilities.
Given these facts, was a comedic movie that depicts Jong Un’s head being blown off in a fiery explosion well-advised in the first place? Have you heard it said that people who play with fire should expect to get burned? Did Sony Pictures even think through the consequences of making such a movie? Did Kim Jong Un just fit the right profile of a bad guy when producers sat down to brainstorm a plot — or did they imagine this would unite North Korea’s citizens in an uprising against him?
The truth is, for all the brilliant films that come out of it, Hollywood can also be childish and myopic. Some movie fare is so sophomoric, gratuitously violent, misogynistic or scatological that it feels as if the filmmakers are flexing their collective muscle just to say, “You can’t stop us!” But we’re living in times that demand more thoughtfulness about the messages we convey, whether across the globe or at home, especially with imagery this visceral. Making “The Interview” isn’t much different from burning a Koran and streaming it live, as a Florida church did in 2011. That resulted in mass protests around the Muslim world that the Pentagon said killed more than 16 and injured more than 90. Yet Pastor Terry Jones was all set to do it again the following year.
In countries where the press isn’t free and government controls the message, people might not believe “The Interview” isn’t a form of provocation by the richest, most powerful nation in the world. That gets more likely as the lines between our own key players and their interests — government, business, private citizens — get squishier. One would hope North Koreans would see the allure of a freer way of life. But should they ever see “The Interview,” it’s doubtful that’s what they’d perceive. More likely they’d see a bullying America disrespecting their leader and trying to humiliate a small non-Western nation.
Parody and provocation have important roles to play in our culture. But let’s be thoughtful about how we use them and what messages we convey. Let’s think bigger than adolescent defiance and dollar signs. And let’s start teaching everyone diplomacy and civility early in school.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.