did the terrorists win?

As I am sure that you know by now, Sony Pictures was set to release the film comedy The Interview on Friday. The movie takes as its subject an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. President Obama has publicly blamed North Korea for the recent hacks into Sony's data systems, and the studio, as well as theater chains, have been threatened with violence should they release the film. Though the Department of Homeland Security declared those threats not to be credible, the major theater chains cancelled their screenings, at which point Sony yanked the movie entirely. A few theaters around the country tried to show Team America: World Police in response to the threat--in that movie, former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un's father) is portrayed in puppet form--but that film's studio, Paramount, would not allow it.

The response to these events has been a nearly unanimous denunciation. Nine years ago, a Danish newspaper received similar threats over its publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Its editor wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this morning characterizing these decisions as "an open-ended invitation for more intimidation," and the president declared Sony's decision a "mistake."

I have to admit that I do not see the issue in such clear-cut terms. This is not a question of, say, whether a country should pay a ransom when their citizens are kidnapped (which, by the way, many European countries do while the US categorically does not) or even whether to publish the Danish cartoons. Those decisions pit safety and security against significant principles. But I don't see where the ability of Americans to see The Interview represents the same sort of moral calculus. If even one person were to die for some dumbass Seth Rogen movie, the studio's and theaters' decision to show the film would not look look courageous, but greedy, callous and stubborn. Of course no one has a right to issue such threats, the world would be a better place if they did not exist, and artists and businesspeople should have the ability to circulate anything that they are inclined to produce. But given that these things are not actually true, it is not at all obvious to me that yielding to threats might not sometimes be the more prudent action.

Obama noted that situations might emerge in which a dictators "start seeing a documentary that they don't like or news reports that they don't like." The invocation of such a scenario is a slippery-slope argument: today terrorists suppress film comedies, tomorrow freedom of the press is curtailed. The very structure of this argument, however, reveals that these costs are not the same: the negative consequences of the first are primarily assigned in that they are likely to lead to the second. I think that we are perfectly capable of saying that we're going to make the tough decisions and risk people's lives and safety when truly important things are at stake, and maybe we're not if the things aren't quite so significant. If we really believed that any change in our behavior were an unacceptable victory for terrorism, then we wouldn't be taking off our shoes at the airport. No matter what we say, our approach to security in the face of terrorism has always been a cost-benefit analysis rather than a consistent application of principle. And I don't think it's unacceptable to consider the possibility that the benefits of this movie might not be worth the potential cost.