Bandying “Terrorism”

George Clooney has now joined North Korea’s United Nations ambassador Ja Song Nam in bandying charges of “terrorism” against a foe. North Korea’s emissary in New York complained in July that the production of Sony’s film, The Interview, was “the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

So, too, according to Clooney, was the threat leveled by unknown persons against theaters that might show the film: “Then, to turn around and threaten to blow people up and kill people, and just by that threat alone we change what we do for a living, that’s the actual definition of terrorism,” he said.

We don’t know more about the definition, but the ambassador and Mr. Clooney do teach us about usage. “Terrorism” is a debased, all-purpose charge anyone can use against anyone. There is a special variant of the word in which the results of an action provide conclusive evidence of the motive behind it. Because U.S. theaters yanked The Interview from their Christmas Day schedules, Clooney can plausibly call the threat “terrorism.” Had most people, like me, assumed the threat to be an idle prank, it would not have been terrorism.

I remain unpersuaded of a North Korean connection or anyone’s meaningful capacity or willingness to attack theaters. The most proximate cause of The Interview’s cancellation, it seems to me, is risk aversion on the part of theater owners’ lawyers. They apparently concluded that an attack could be a foreseeable cause of death and injury, for which owners could be liable. (Go ahead, reformers. Call trial lawyers “terrorists.”)

Subject matter expert Paddy Hillyard, a professor of sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast, eschews the term “terrorism” for reasons he articulated in a 2010 Cato Unbound. He participated in Cato’s study of terrorism and counterterrorism (conference, forum, book). I’m one of many who don’t believe that “cyberterrorism” even exists.

The greatest risk in all this is that loose talk of terrorism and “cyberwar” lead nations closer to actual war. Having failed to secure its systems, Sony has certainly lost a lot of money and reputation, but for actual damage to life and limb, you ain’t seen nothing like real war. It is not within well-drawn boundaries of U.S. national security interests to avenge wrongs to U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese corporations. Governments in the United States should respond to the Sony hack with nothing more than ordinary policing and diplomacy.