Justifiable Cowardice

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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65 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    Did Obama forget that the NFL postponed a week of games immediately following the 9/11 attacks? Whoops. And that our government has done a number of things — all of which at least inconvenience if not directly harm our citizenry — in response to terrorism (e.g., TSA, PATRIOT ACT, PRISM). This is a private company making a calculated decision… much like shipping companies (or perhaps their insurers) that were willing to pay parities for hijacked ships.

    The state should avoid being bullied by terrorists. The same such obligation is not held by individuals or companies.Report

  2. Alan Scott says:

    Frankly, I object to Sony’s actions for exactly the same reason I object to Bush telling us that we can defeat the terrorists by shopping.

    They both use the threat of violent extremism to do exactly what they want to do anyway. It’s not as though Bush would have said “oh hey, don’t worry about being a consumer right now” if there weren’t terrorists.

    Similarly, I’m convinced that Sony is only taking this step because they know the movie is crap. If they avoid a theatrical release b/c terrorism, they avoid having to pay a lot of their bills, probably get an insurance payout to cover the gaps, and can release the whole thing on Itunes in January.

    When Bush asked us to go to war with Iraq over non-credible threats of WMDs, it was an objectively horrible thing. But it also did so by creating cynicism and fear that paved the way for more horrible things. When Sony cancels a movie over non-credible threats, it’s not objectively horrible–at worst, it’s shady accounting. But it’s shady accounting that still carries with it a by-product of cynicism and fear that paves the way for more horrible things.Report

  3. Lyle says:

    Why Sony did not decide to just go to dvd and on-line release is not clear. Was netflix unwilling? I suspect with the publicity they got they could have made a killing. I can see the theater owners point of view in particular if they have not put door alarms on the emergency exits (which would have stopped the Co event. By these I mean the door bars that say if this door is open an alarm will sound.)Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Lyle says:

      I give the theaters a pass. Whether I give Sony a pass depends on what they do with the movie.

      I am at least softly supporting indemnity for venues.

      What I remain at least a little skeptical of, though, is that this is entirely about threats of physical violence.Report

  4. zic says:

    I agree with Tod’s comment the other day; Sony seems to have pulled the movie because theaters cancelled. Why did theater’s cancel? Because of insurance; the lingering flavor of Aurora, and potential dents in sales of other seats in other movies? I don’t know.

    But what I do know is that in general, our world is out there, you can see it on google earth and maps. You can see the movie theaters, schools, malls, churches, synagogs, water supplies, power lines, highways, tunnels. It’s all pretty easy to get at for a determined terrorist. That it’s not got at often and repeatedly suggests that determined terrorists are really, really uncommon. And that’s the best reason to go to a movie, have a drink of water, or take a stroll in a famous park. You’re in more danger from the car ride getting there.Report

  5. Lyle says:

    I guess I wonder why Sony did not just can the theatrical release and let Netflix et.al. release it as well as on DVD. As someone pointed out from the point of view of the theater company only 20% of the ticket price goes to them so its now worth it if extra security is involved. Going to the digital and DVD channel makes attacks that much more difficult (assuming Netflix has adaquate security in place, but they have been warned. )Report

  6. Saul Degraw says:

    Interestingly Mitt Romney might have the perfect response/solution. Release it on-line and ask for a 5 dollar voluntary contribution to Ebola.


  7. Saul Degraw says:

    FWIW one of my more left-wing friends has been pointing out with sardonic glee that the same people who want SONY and the Theatres to show The Interview are often the same idiots who led us to the debacle in the Iraq War.

    Personally I think John Chait has the right take:


    “This is not to defend Sony’s decision, but to point out that there is a mismatch here between the public interest at stake and the private interests who are positioned to act on it. Sony is a for-profit entity, and not even an American one, that effectively has important influence over American culture. We don’t entrust for-profit entities with the common defense. And recognizing that the threat to a Sony picture is actually a threat to the freedom of American culture ought to lead us to a public rather than a private solution.

    The federal government should take financial responsibility. Either Washington should guarantee Sony’s financial liability in the event of an attack, or it should directly reimburse the studio’s projected losses so it can release the movie online for free. The latter solution has the attractive benefit of ensuring a far wider audience for the film than it would otherwise have attracted.”Report

    • zic in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Should our Federal Government take on the financial responsibility of attacks on theaters in other countries, too?Report

    • dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “The federal government should take financial responsibility. Either Washington should guarantee Sony’s financial liability in the event of an attack, or it should directly reimburse the studio’s projected losses so it can release the movie online for free. The latter solution has the attractive benefit of ensuring a far wider audience for the film than it would otherwise have attracted.”

      “hey guys, let’s all watch a terrible movie because AMERICA and so we can show up the world’s craziest awful government somehow.”

      i know it’s chait and all but he’s generally not completely bonkers like this.Report

  8. Notme says:

    Sony’s real mistake was ever making picture in the first place. Did they really think the north korean nutters were going to do nothing given their history of terrorism?Report

  9. Kazzy says:

    I’m honestly surprised this has generated so much discussion. Movies — and artistic endeavors* and commercial projects of all stripes — get shelved everyday for numerous reasons. ESPN cancelled “Playmakers” because a financial partner (the NFL) felt it showed the League in a bad light and put pressure on them to pull the plug. Episodes of “South Park” have been edited, censored, or pulled from syndication because they offended one group or another. We may not agree with all of these decisions, but provided they are made by private actors without undue influence by the government, I think we have to ultimately conclude that Sony made the decision they thought was in the best interest of their company and move on from there. No one has a ‘right’ to see this movie, Sony has no obligation to release it under any circumstances. It feels a bit like this is becoming a weird wedge issue in the Left/Right wars, though I’m not even sure who is on which side…Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

      Forgot to address my *…

      I’m sure that @saul-degraw can offer plenty more examples from this category than I can dream up as he seems to be the resident expert on the inner workings of the art world.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

        There are no obligations and there are plenty of movies that get shelved for later because they look like bombs or get switched to a straight to DVD/Streaming release for the same reason.

        There are also movies that break companies by going wildly over budget. Heaven’s Gate is the most famous example. There is a newish movement that is trying to claim that Heaven’s Gate is really better than its reputation but I’ve never been able to complete a full-viewing of it.

        However, Seth Rogan and James Franco are very popular and my guess is that unless this movie was REALLY REALLY REALLY BAD (caps are intentional) that Sony would have made a profit. Seth Rogan and James Franco are also really really popular and it if Sony tried to pull or downplay this movie under any other circumstance, it would have been huge news and backfired on them. So Alan Scott is probably right that Sony might be seeing the hack as a blessing in disguise if the film is REALLY REALLY REALLY BAD.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

        For example, the period between January First to the summer blockbuster season is generally when studios release movies that they have low hopes for*. This is largely still a graveyard season but it is changing and Blockbuster season now seems to be a year long event. The Lego Movie was a pleasant surprise from last year’s dead time.

        *I don’t really understand why because I figure that the generally miserable weather of January and February would be a great way to get people to see movies.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Kazzy says:

      “…felt it showed the League in a bad light and put pressure on them to pull the plug.”

      Well, I hope we threatened to attack them.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Rufus F. says:

        We were going to but first we had to choose a leader and by the 9th round of balloting, wherein everyone demurely voted for the person to their right so as not to upset anyone, we decided to form an “Atlas Shrugged” book club instead.Report

  10. krogerfoot says:

    I am even more uninformed on this topic than usual, so it’s probably been pointed out many times already that here in Japan, threats from North Korea are hardly hypothetical. They have shot missiles this way, and their boogeymen have kidnapped a score of Japanese civilians (something I was once confident was a ridiculous myth). Sony’s reluctance to stand up to a threat from these lunatics is sad but not indefensible.Report

  11. Michael Drew says:

    +1 to the OP.

    I did think that Obama’s “I think they made a mistake” was appropriately measured if he was going to take that position, and I do think there is value in encouraging courage by speakers in the face of threats. Overblown rhetoric about Sony striking a blow against free speech is unfair and unproductive, though, and Obama was right to avoid it.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Michael Drew says:

      The idea that a private company choosing not to release a movie that they don’t want to release is somehow a blow to free speech is… curious…Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Kazzy says:

        Yes. It’s a confused rabbit hole. The First Amendment protects us from restraint by the government on our free speech. Extortion laws protect us from threats by each other on our free speech. And the federal government acting to provide for the common defense protects us from threats from outside the country on our free speech. Unless it can’t, in which case we have to make prudent choices for ourselves about what to say and not say, which is not a blow to free speech. Even domestically, there are things we can say that are First-Amendment protected that we know might get us punched in the nose, and wen we close not so say them at the times when they’ll get us punched in the nose, that’s not a blow to free speech – even though the guy who punches you can then get prosecuted for it.Report

  12. Rufus F. says:

    I don’t really know how to put this into words at 1:30 after a long day of work, but it seems to me that America has the “free speech” that is enshrined in the Constitution, which prohibits making any law that abridges freedom of speech, and then also has the “free speech” that exists as a broader cultural value. Really, it is possible to limit or curtail a person’s ability to express themselves freely in any number of ways, but when it happens in ways other than through law, people can respond that it’s not a first amendment issue- even if it is still a free speech issue. In this case, I wouldn’t really say Sony sucks, but definitely anyone who would threaten violence against the public for watching a movie seriously sucks.Report

  13. Rufus F. says:

    Another thing that came to mind when reading the post was the famous IRA line (although I think it might have been used previously in a book on guerrilla warfare in general) in their communique after the Brighton hotel bombing:
    “Remember we will only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”Report

  14. Jaybird says:

    In the short term, I totally understand why Sony did this.

    In the long term, I’m wondering what I won’t be able to see next year, or the year after that, or the year after that because of this decision by Sony.Report

  15. Glyph says:

    “A threat to create unspecified violence, however, is credible regardless of the source because violence is comparatively easy even for unskilled first-timers to inflict.”

    While this is obviously true, what the OP doesn’t explore is how we conduct a civil society if we treat every threat of unspecified violence from unknown persons as a prompt to change our actions.

    People had no issue putting pressure on, say, Chik-Fil-A for taking actions, either as individuals or as a corporation, that they saw as ultimately damaging to a pluralistic free civil society. I see no reason Sony should not be subject to the same pressures of public opinion. If Sony is putting its own financial and PR interest over that of broader society, I can both say that that’s their right and also say, as Obama has, that I wish they hadn’t, and I hope the next guy won’t follow their example.

    Free speech and not letting bullies have their way is one area where *this* libertarianish guy gets collectivist and says we are all in this together; we stand in unison or we fall alone. If that means a multibillion dollar international conglomerate takes a little public drubbing and shaming, I’m OK with that.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Glyph says:

      I have a completely different take on the credible threat thing. DPRK to US government: “We cracked one of your big corporation’s computer network. We poked around for years. We downloaded everything and no one even suspected until we released it. Do you want to bet that we’re not in the computers that run your electric grid? Your cell phone networks? Your oil refineries and pipelines?”

      Not small random violence; a credible threat of something much worse.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I guess I’m not sure how that applies here.

        Assuming arguendo that it’s true that they *might* already have made those kinds of inroads:

        1. Sony didn’t know that (or even who was responsible) when they pulled the film.
        2. That wasn’t the threat made (at least publicly, though as you say, it may be implied).
        3. If that’s the implicit or explicit threat, then the U.S. govt, not Sony, needs to figure out how it wants to respond to what I assume would be a threat or act of war. While the govt. could certainly ask Sony to respond a certain way (“Listen, we have a plan, but it’s not ready to go yet, so can you please accede to these demands to buy time”) we have no evidence that’s what happened here.

        I guess I just don’t think “capitulate” is the best long-term option. For any individual small business owner, it is far less costly to just pay that protection money when the wiseguys come around telling you “nice place ya got here, be a shame if something were to happen to it.” But overall it’s more costly to everyone. Free Civil Society is, paradoxically, one big Prisoner’s Dilemma, and right now Sony sort of defected first.Report

      • The point is that North Korea isn’t threatening Sony. Nothing happens if Sony releases the film, at least not on the scale of bombing theaters. Maybe a few databases at Sony get wiped — if North Korean hackers have been crawling around in Sony’s servers for the last couple of years, who knows what unpleasant bits of software they might have left behind.

        And indeed, now that the FBI has accused North Korea, it’s the US government that has to figure out what to do. Commit to spending a trillion dollars to harden the country’s software infrastructure against intrusions like that? Commit private companies to spending a trillion dollars to harden their software infrastructure? Laugh it off?

        The best argument against my position is that Robert J. Samuelson took the same position in his column this AM.Report

  16. Will Truman says:

    So apparently Sony will release the movie online. A stand-up thing to do.Report

    • zic in reply to Will Truman says:

      @will-truman I’ve been unable to load the front page. The only thing I can think of is that I switched the email address; so mostly experimenting to see if I can recover my old self and this community.Report

  17. zic says:

    Totally Off Topic, but the front page will not load for me, no matter how I try. Strange request this, but please put a link in comments so that I can try and diagnose my problems? Page me with an @zic so that I might get to it?

    Thank you!Report

  18. dragonfrog says:

    After Sony sued geohot over his PS3 research, and after the Sony Rootkit debacle, I’m done with Sony. It doesn’t matter what decision they made over this movie, it would take much, much more than that to convince me they don’t suck.

    For now, until I’m convinced they’ve thoroughly repented of their earlier evils, I’m not going to deliberately consume any Sony product – I’ve bought products less well suited to my preferences when a Sony one was better, to avoid giving them any of my money. I’ll continue doing so, including not watching this movie (not much of a sacrifice), as well as not watching movies of theirs I would actually like to see.

    A thorough apology to geohot, refunding all money he paid them and releasing him from all terms of the settlement, and endowing several very generous professorships in security research in his name (and absolutely not in Sony’s) would be a start.Report

  19. Roger says:

    I suggest Glyph finds a bootleg version on the Internet and converts this month’s listening session into a shared solidarity and viewing session.Report

  20. Patrick says:

    Even without a demonstrated ability, I would trust that the average reader here could figure out how to attack a movie theater and cause considerable damage including deaths without assistance, assuming they didn’t care about getting caught.

    Sure, this is actually pretty trivial.

    But the barrier to attack a movie theater is so ridiculously low that the question then needs to be asked: do you close the entire movie theater industry every time someone makes a threat on the Internet?

    Because I will bet you right now one nice crisp newly minted $1 bill that somewhere on Twitter or YouTube or Facebook there are at least 1,000 posts threatening actual violence to the moviegoing public. This is what you get when you have billions of people on the Internet.

    I can’t believe I have to say this to a guy who wrote a book about cyberwar and cyberterrorism, but an attack against the movie doesn’t have to occur in 18,000 locations simultaneously to cause considerable damage.

    If this group threatened to blow up “a national historic landmark if Sony released this movie” do you think (a) movie theaters would have dropped the movie (b) Sony would have not released the movie or (c) anybody anywhere would be talking about how irresponsible Sony and/or the theaters were if they released the movie because “these people might blow up any national historic landmark anywhere”?

    There are too many national historic landmarks in the country to secure, after all. The same logic for attack space follows.

    Demonstrated capability is important in risk analysis precisely because it has to be demonstrated. Any freakin’ loon on the Internet can make all sorts of crazy-ass threats (and they do, by the millions, every day), and statistically nearly zero of those threats are executed. This is exactly why after every actual incident of violence, everyone spends days talking about how it was so obvious that this guy was going to go off, because look at all these things he said or did on the Internet prior to exploding, but it ignores the fact that right now there are thousands upon thousands of people saying precisely that same sort of freakin’ loon stuff and none of them are going to go off. There is no predictive value, at all, in “somebody said something scary on the Internet” and the actual likelihood of them doing anything other than saying something scary on the Internet again.Report

  21. Stillwater says:

    This is an informative read, given the OP:

    A Lot of Smart People Think North Korea Didn’t Hack Sony.Report

  22. Stillwater says:

    Cyber security experts are questioning the FBI’s claim that North Korea is responsible for the hack that crippled Sony Pictures. Kurt Stammberger, a senior vice president with cybersecurity firm Norse, told CBS News his company has data that doubts some of the FBI’s findings…

    He says Norse data is pointing towards a woman who calls herself “Lena” and claims to be connected with the so-called “Guardians of Peace” hacking group. Norse believes it’s identified this woman as someone who worked at Sony in Los Angeles for ten years until leaving the company this past May…

    It’s worth noting that the original demand of the hackers was for money from Sony in exchange for not releasing embarrassing information. There was no mention of the movie “The Interview”… Report