The two interlocking storylines – “cyberterrorism” and censorship – that drove the media narrative about the massive Sony hack and the fate of the feature film The Interview obscure reality far more than they reveal it.
The political and cultural stakes couldn’t be higher.
The Sony hack is, at root, a cautionary business tale. Yet within three short weeks, it morphed into a manufactured national security crisis that pushed discussion of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s “Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” [PDF] – off mass media’s front pages.
This was a classic, magnificent example of misdirection.
The Senate report, released on December 9, 2014, confirmed and described in gruesome detail the systematic post-9/11 US torture of selected detainees. While many readers were sickened by sadistic actions that, in French philosopher Simone Weil’s definition of force, reduce human beings to the status of “things,” others blamed the problem on a few “bad apples,” or simply justified the actions. Like most nations, the United States prefers to accuse others of villainy and atrocity rather than acknowledge and be held accountable for our own. But before this national discussion could deepen, public attention was hijacked.
On December 15, Newt Gingrich tweeted, “There is no ‘Senate Report’ on torture – Instead, there’s a dishonest left-wing attack disguised as an Intelligence Committee Report.” Days later, invoking the ghosts of 9/11, he announced “the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.”
The now-dominant Sony hack narrative is simplistic and fear-based. As we argue in our new book, Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics, this kind of media-produced fear, common throughout US history, fosters a culture that inhibits people’s ability to reflect upon nuanced realities. It reduces the complex underlying issues to simplistic, false binaries of good/bad, left/right or us/them. It promotes a crisis mentality that reinforces existing psychological biases and obscures ongoing, ordinary structural forms of violence. And it does this by emotionally entertaining the audience with thrilling, enemy-focused narratives. “We” are always the heroes of the story.
Fear always has a payoff. Something may scare us, but fear allows us to feel that we are in an elemental struggle between good and evil, always on the side of virtue.
The new call to war came, simultaneously, from unlikely allies. Right-wing Newt Gingrich again took to social media, labeling the hack of a Japanese company “a deliberate assault on America.” Liberal George Clooney took direct aim at threats intended to stop the release of The Interview: “We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all f*cking people.”
Publicly reported on November 24, 2014, the hack was first framed as a case of business-related cyber harassment. Over the next two weeks, the story escalated from the steady release of embarrassing emails and confidential corporate data and personnel information to threats of violence from anonymous hackers calling themselves “Guardians of Peace,” or GOP. The first threats made by email to Sony employees and their families (December 5) were followed by another alleged GOP warning, posted online, to cease showing the “movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War” (December 8). Threats of violent attacks at theaters showing the film came a few days later.
No one really knows who Guardians of Peace are. It’s not known if they are a monolithic, focused group or a diverse collectivity of skilled hackers who, like Anonymous, undertake different actions and post different messages in different venues, under the name’s umbrella. They may be disgruntled insiders.
In the summer, North Korea had made known its fury over the film, scheduled for release on December 25. By November 28, Sony publicly expressed concern about possible North Korean involvement. After equivocating, the FBI finally confirmed a North Korean link to the Sony hack, but provided no definitive evidence to support their assertion. Other respected cybersecurity experts cautioned prudence in assigning blame.
Another Racist Call to War
The full-fledged media narrative about North Korean terrorism in reaction to the film didn’t emerge until the December 8 threats related to the release of the movie were issued, just one day before the highly anticipated release of the US torture report. Then the cyber-rattling began in earnest, gaining momentum with the theater threats and Sony’s cancellation of the film’s release.
Threats of violence are always reprehensible, but they never justify stoking racist and xenophobic fear. We’ve seen these alleged villains before: shadowy “terrorists” who commit mass murder because they “hate American freedom.” Now, North Korea’s government – and Kim Jong-un, in particular – have joined Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and ISIS in the pantheon of 21st century terrorist masterminds.
Like the run-up to the US “war on terror” after 9/11, the Sony hack drama revives the West’s racist, Orientalist “Other.” The hacking narrative, together with the story told in The Interview, strengthens the elastic “yellow peril”/purveyor of terror/evil mastermind archetype that haunts so much of Western popular culture. North Koreans are portrayed as brutish fools, intrinsically violent and inherently criminal, and their leaders are shown as dangerously insane.
It’s easy to look askance at the always-bellicose, ruthlessly authoritarian North Korean regime, led for decades by men from the same family dynasty. The Sony hack narrative also gins up a casual racism that helps to mainstream the idea of political assassination. If we can laugh at political assassination in such films as Zoolander and The Interview, we’re less likely to worry about our own country’s use of assassination as a political weapon.
After being scolded by President Obama, Mitt Romney, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rob Lowe, Clooney, John McCain, Gingrich and others for pulling the film, Sony, in what was hailed as an unprecedented victory against censorship, changed its mind. Now the assassination-of-Kim-Jong-un comedy, possessing new cachet as a symbol of the US “war on terror,” can be seen “on demand,” and in some theaters.
Yet such newly minted opponents of state censorship as Romney, McCain and Giuliani are hardly trustworthy guardians of freedom of speech and creative expression. And it’s ludicrous to suggest that the United States doesn’t also engage in state-sponsored censorship. It happens all the time, and declarations of war, geopolitical or cultural, always intensify the repressive instinct. Local and state governments regularly censor school curricula and texts. Writing in The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg points out that “We don’t actually have to imagine what threats to artists and consumers might look like. They’re already here, whether as manifestations of fanboy intensity, sexist rage, or religious norms.”
In the end, the Sony hack narrative offers little more than another round of warmongering within a framework of American exceptionalism, with Sony’s film as the “win” of the war.
“Understand what is going on right now, because the world just changed on your watch, and you weren’t even paying attention,” Clooney admonishes us. While heartfelt, the warning is myopic.
Many people have been paying attention – for a long time – to the use of state-sponsored threats, torture and censorship. But they are not corporate behemoths; they are from vulnerable, already-marginalized and poor communities in the United States, North Korea and other countries. They are the most frequent targets of repression and violence. So they’re not the people who matter to most policy makers.
Humbling self-reflection would be a better response than yet another summons to war: How is our own nation implicated in the same violence we deplore when done by others? There is a shadow aspect to the public virtues of every nation, including the United States. It is not only a dictator in an insular country who appears as a menace to decent people. Apart from the post-9/11 detentions, the United States has a long and varied history of involvement in torture and assassination, as instructor, architect, partner and administrator.
But we don’t confront that history; we always displace the responsibility onto someone else. That’s why many feel the contemporary torture report must be discounted, discredited and forgotten. It’s why we seldom talk honestly about US involvement in destabilizing and overthrowing other governments – actions always justified by business considerations. And it’s why we are urged to regard US cyberspying as patriotic. This means we can never truly come to terms with that history or develop a deep sense of shared humanity with our domestic and global neighbors.
Yes, we must respond to real threats. But not with a default rush to demonize enemies, real and imagined, and declare war. We need a new vision and practice of justice rooted in something richer, more imaginative and more humane than vengeance.
Perhaps the liberal Mr. Clooney and friends could help leverage the cultural heft needed to dream bolder – and different – justice dreams. It’s a sure thing that we can’t count on help from the right.