By most accounts, "The Interview," the comedy that revolves around a bumbling plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is not high art but the sort of sophomoric, gross-out shtick that Hollywood produces in bulk these days. But most Americans will likely never be able to judge that for themselves as Sony Pictures Entertainment has decided not to release the movie on Christmas Day as planned because of a terror threat and "has no further release plans" in the future.
That comes on the heels of the recent computer hacking attack on Sony that U.S. intelligence has pinned on the North Korean government. In other words, it appears a 31-year-old third-generation despot of one of the most backward countries on the planet, a country of starvation and human rights atrocities with nuclear ambitions, can decide what people living in the United States can or can't watch at their local movieplex next week.
Americans ought to be outraged and not only at Mr. Kim but at Sony and theater owners who so easily capitulated to a threat that Homeland Security officials have not exactly suggested was serious or imminent. One federal law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times there was "no credible intelligence" of a plot to target any movie theaters. Sony apparently only saw liability here, and theater owners must have felt the same way. Or maybe the studio executives were just tired of seeing their private email conversations shared with the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, they've set a precedent that is far more troubling than the hack itself and not only for the future of bad Seth Rogen comedies. What's to stop any two-bit dictator or terrorist organization with a grievance to pursue a similar strategy in the future? If Americans so easily bow to the will of Mr. Kim and his cyber-terrorists, why wouldn't others launch similar attacks online or threaten to attack shopping malls, schools or other places where large number of Americans congregate?
This is the terrorism equivalent of a drone attack, relatively inexpensive, launched from a great distance away, risk-free but effective. And it's particularly effective because some people seem to be anxious to capitulate. Would the World War II generation have stayed home huddled in safety if Adolf Hitler had threatened to blow up theaters that showed "The Great Dictator," the 1940 Charlie Chaplin comedy that mocked him? We don't think so.
Perhaps some people have decided Sony got what it deserved for producing a film that goes after a dictator by name and includes a scene in which Mr. Kim is killed by a tank shell, his head exploding in flame in slow motion. Maybe the film's $44 million production costs and $35 million marketing budget are peanuts to a Hollywood studio compared to the cost of a single incident of violence by some "lone wolf" or Kim sympathizer who might drive customers away from theaters on a more permanent basis, a potential billion-dollar loss.
But all that pales compared to what ought to be a bedrock principle of this democracy — we don't bow to the whims of foreign tyrants. Our freedoms and our core beliefs should not be given up so cheaply — even when the exercise of those freedoms involves something no more noble than watching a dumb comedy. Whether it's the Senate torture report and the willingness of so many Americans to excuse the outrageous behavior of CIA interrogators or the too-willing acceptance of heightened surveillance by the National Security Agency, our convictions seem to be dissolving in the face of overblown fears of terrorist attacks. Since 9/11, there have been fewer than two dozen fatal terrorist attacks in this country. Driving a car is about a thousand times more dangerous.
Whether Sony ever profits from "The Interview" is of no particular concern, but we are now anxious to view the movie and laugh (if possible given its sheer stupidity) at jokes made at the expense of North Korea's "Supreme Leader." It was heartening to read that Mr. Kim's death scene from the film can now be found online, and we would support the ambitions of those human rights activists who want to drop DVDs of the movie into North Korea by balloon. Americans should watch the film by whatever means necessary so that terrorists will learn at least one lesson about this country that has withstood the test of time — in the entertainment business, notoriety and controversy sell.