Last Friday, in his end-of-the-year press conference, President Obama scolded Sony Pictures. Canceling the theatrical release of “The Interview” following cyberattacks from North Korea, he said, was “a mistake.” Two days later, on CNN, he added that North Korea had committed an act of “cybervandalism.”
Where to begin?
Perhaps with what should be the most obvious point: This was not an attack on a single movie or company. This was a state-sponsored cyberattack on the United States of America, and it was followed by threats of violence against innocent American citizens. It also was an assault on freedom of speech, the most fundamental of our civil rights.
On one hand, Mr. Obama rightly said: “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” On the other hand, he implied it is primarily corporate America’s responsibility to stand up to such dictators. Since when is that not in the job description of the leader of the free world?
Mr. Obama also said he was concerned that “if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they do when they start seeing a documentary they don’t like, or news reports they don’t like. Or, even worse, imagine if producers or distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of someone whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.”
If? Imagine? Among those that have practiced self-censorship in response to threats from Islamists are Comedy Central, Yale University Press and the Deutsche Oper.
In 2004, Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote a film critical of the treatment of women under Islam, the religion into which she was born and raised. Soon after its broadcast on TV, the producer, Theo van Gogh, was killed in the street by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim who objected to such criticism. Ms. Ali also was threatened. She moved to America, where Islamists and their allies have been attempting, with some success, to block her from speaking on campuses.
Four years ago, cartoonist Molly Norris came up with an idea intended to protect artists satirizing jihadists: “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” A fatwa was issued calling for her to be killed by any Muslim willing and able. She recanted, but it was too late: The FBI advised her to “go ghost” — quit her job, move and change her name. She hasn’t been heard from since — although she was included in a list that appeared recently in Inspire, al Qaeda’s online magazine, along with a caption: “Yes we can: A bullet a day keeps the infidel away.”
The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian has been in an Iranian prison since July. No one knows what he did to anger the authorities. His incarceration sends a clear message to other reporters working in the country.
Journalist Matti Friedman has described in great detail how Hamas uses intimidation not just to censor the media but also to shape the narrative regarding Gaza and the Palestinians.
This, too, should be mentioned: The cause of freedom was not strengthened when the Obama administration blamed the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, on an amateurish trailer of a video called “Innocence of Muslims” and threw the producer, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, in jail on unrelated charges.
By now, I hope, you’re connecting the dots: A war is being waged against free speech in the West. I’d argue it began a quarter-century ago — in 1989 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, issued a fatwa calling for the killing of a British subject, Salman Rushdie. The ayatollah considered Mr. Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” insulting to Islam. United Kingdom and European Union leaders had a choice: Defend their values or pretend the problem was primarily Mr. Rushdie’s and that he should hire bodyguards.
They chose the latter, even though Iran was then a decidedly second-rate power with no nuclear weapons. Mr. Kim, of course, rules a third-rate power but does have nuclear weapons — because American negotiators failed to find a diplomatic solution to the North Korean threat. Iran’s supreme leader is now attempting to acquire, with North Korean assistance, his own nuclear weapons capability. No evidence suggests American diplomats will be more successful this time around.
Ample evidence does suggest that Hollywood will henceforth take care not to offend the world’s worst despots. Plans to make a thriller set in North Korea starring Steve Carell reportedly have been canceled.
Mr. Obama has vowed to “respond proportionally” to the North Korean attack. Such language is unlikely to cause Mr. Kim to shiver in his shoes. The young dictator no doubt recalls that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad suffered no serious consequences after crossing Mr. Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons to mass-murder his own citizens. He knows, too, that the Islamic Republic of Iran plotted to bomb a Washington restaurant a few years back. Nothing dire transpired as a result.
A successful cyberattack against American movie moguls has diminished American freedom. A successful cyberattack against American financial institutions, the electrical grid or the Defense Department could do much greater damage. Is the Obama administration doing all that is necessary to address this threat?
Not so long ago, American leaders knew that some terrorists hijack planes. They also knew that some terrorists were prepared to die if they could slaughter infidels in the process. Yet American leaders failed to imagine how these two behaviors might be combined into a devastating atrocity. In the wake of a state-sponsored cyberattack coupled with terrorist threats, have their imaginations become more vivid?
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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