The Seth Rogen movie quashed by a terrorist threat against Sony Pictures isn’t the first to assassinate a sitting dictator just for laughs.
A decade ago, “Team America: World Police” impaled a puppet Kim Jong Il on the spike of a Prussian military helmet. Five years before that, in “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” Satan impaled a cartoon Saddam Hussein on a stalagmite in Hell, even though they were gay lovers.
Six years before that, in “Hot Shots: Part Deux,” a live-action Saddam Hussein – played, incidentally, by Capitol lobbyist Jerry Haleva – was frozen alive, smashed to smithereens, resurrected as a dog and crushed by a piano.
As it happens, dictators get killed all the time in movies. So it’s understandable that, until this week, few people believed that North Korea would actually launch a cyberattack over “The Interview,” in which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un fictionally explodes.
It’s still hard to believe. But U.S. officials say North Korea was, in fact, “centrally involved” in hacking Sony’s computers, a massive assault that, for non-Sony employees, seemed amusing until threats escalated to the possibility of attacks on theater-goers.
As those threats materialized this week on Sony computers, the nation’s four largest theater chains started canceling showings of the movie. Sony subsequently scrapped the release, which was to have been on Christmas Day.
And now the debate has shifted abruptly from whether the rest of us should be reveling in all the embarrassing celebrity emails that were released by the hackers to whether this surrender signals something dangerous for the First Amendment.
We’ll cut to the chase, as they say in show business.
The pre-emption of a silly movie featuring exploding despots may not sound like much of a loss, even when it’s pre-empted in this country. But it sends a signal: We actually do negotiate with terrorists. And we’re willing to let our freedom of speech be the currency.
At this point, little can be done. Theaters can hardly be blamed for exercising caution a scant two years after the movie-house massacre in Aurora, Colo. And Sony’s priorities as a Japanese mega-corporation owe no particular fealty to the U.S. Constitution. (Though, as a side note, we find it strange that Sony has pulled back from releasing the film online, which would at least have let it recoup some of its investment.)
But this sets a terrible precedent. What happens next time, when some criminal tries to influence what passes for entertainment, or attempts to coerce an elected leader into disseminating misinformation?
It also underscores the need for global corporations doing business in this country to get their cybersecurity acts together.
The FBI has launched an investigation. If North Korea really did mastermind this threat, retaliation is unlikely; no one likes the idea of giving them the kind of fight they apparently long for.
But this can’t happen again.
Dictators, it turns out, will kill free expression all the time if people let them. And it’s no laughing matter when they’re dictating to Americans.