There is an overt ridiculousness about North Korea that, by making it the subject of kitsch, has shielded the regime from the full brunt of its deserved moral opprobrium. The North Korean regime is not only the source of inadvertently comic propaganda but also ghastly torture. And so the revelation that the regime was employing terrorist threats to stop a James Franco–Seth Rogen movie was initially greeted as a hilarious joke — which, in a sense, it is — before a colder reality has slowly settled in: A totalitarian regime has just successfully exerted control over American media. Another studio has immediately canceled a North Korea–themed project. Others will follow. American film is now being effectively vetted by Pyongyang.
The disturbing sequence of events has led some critics to flay Sony Pictures for its cowardice in the face of threats. Sony may not be a profile in courage. But it has its reasons. In the unlikely (but far from impossible) event that terrorists carried out their threat to attack a showing of the film, the legal liability to Sony would be immense.
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.
The fiscal cost of backstopping Sony, against the backdrop of the federal budget, would be insignificant. There is also precedent for government reimbursement for private businesses affected by terrorist attacks — Washington bailed out the airlines, who were only indirect victims of the September 11 attacks — not to mention innumerable businesses harmed by natural disasters.
The awfulness of these events is buried beneath multiples layers of humor. The very existence of a Marxist government with a hereditary king is morbidly hilarious — let alone that this child-hermit-king, who unsuccessfully attempts not to be funny, feels threatened by people who are funny on purpose. But, as Charlie Chaplin knew, there can be humor in even the most horrifying things in the world.