In the latest exaggerated media frenzy over a news story, the alleged North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures’ computers has been called "cyberterrorism" against "who we are" as a country." First, "terrorism" is word that should probably be retired from public usage, because no one, including academics, can agree on what it means. The term is overused and abused by governments (and thus the lapdog media), including the United States, to describe usually groups, but sometimes countries, that they don’t like. For example, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose country is on the U.S. list of nations who sponsor terrorism, regularly describes rebels trying to overthrow him as "terrorists" (some are even more brutal than he is, but others may not be). The United States gives Assad that label because he provides support for Hezbollah and Hamas, organizations that are on the US list of terrorist groups, primarily for their actions against Israel. If a working definition of terrorism is deliberately killing civilians to generate public pressure on their government to change political course, then these groups sometimes use terror techniques and sometimes do not – when they try to kill Israeli soldiers or win public support by providing services or aid to the people they govern. Of course, some academics shy away from this definition, because it might implicate their own governments.
For example, deliberate US and British "terror" bombing of German and Japanese civilians, after World War II largely had been won, killed 800,000 to 1,000,000 civilians needlessly. The argument that such bombing saved the lives of an estimated 1.000,000 US service personnel, during any potential invasion of Japan, is suspect because the US government never had a firm estimate of such potential casualties, and sacrificing so many Japanese civilians to save US combatants is questionable ethically. More important, the war had already been won and the Japanese threat deflated, without requiring an invasion of the Japanese homeland, by decimating Japanese military power abroad. And if a formal Japanese surrender was deemed a necessity, instead of such saturation bombing of cities, the US could have imposed a naval quarantine around the island nation until it formally capitulated. As for Germany, no need existed to kill so many civilians, given that US and Soviet forces had Germany in a vice grip from two sides.
Counterintuitively, North Korea’s alleged hacking of Sony does not fit the aforementioned common sense definition of terrorism. First, come private cyber-security experts are skeptical that North Korea was the perpetrator of the Sony hacking; but lets assume for the sake of argument that the FBI’s blame on North Korea is accurate. The act was illegal, not very nice, and sullied the reputations of actors Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, and others; but no one was killed (although malicious gossip via e-mail in Hollywood can sometimes seem worse than death). If the North Koreans had hacked computers needed to provide electric power in one part of the United States, thus trying to cause deaths from traffic lights failing, hospital equipment shutting down, etc., I would call that cyberterrorism. Instead North Korea allegedly hacked one company that made a farcical movie about assassinating its leader. Although not a justification for North Korea’s alleged action, the American public would probably be unhappy if another country made a film about assassinating an American president. So although John McCain’s sidekick in threat exaggeration and bellicose strutting, Lindsay Graham, was outraged that President Obama called North Korea’s alleged action "cyber vandalism," that is probably the best description.
At most, one might say that North Korea threatened a fairly implausible 9/11-style terrorist attack against moviegoers who went to see the film at theaters. Perhaps media hype about North Korean "cyberterrorism" even contributed to the overreaction by theater chains in nixing the film, which caused Sony to pull it from distribution. Anyone who studies North Korea knows that they routinely huff and puff with exaggerated blustering when they aren’t getting enough world attention.
Breathless TV commentators’ contention that North Korea attacked "our way of life" by suppressing Americans’ First Amendment right of free expression is also overdone. The overreaction of theater chains and Sony to the incident is of their own making. Beyond that, the incident illustrates that private companies should augment their cyber security to protect themselves from relatively sophisticated hackers.
So what should Obama do about this fairly minor outrage? Put North Korea back on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism? More economic sanctions and asset freezes against Kim Jong-un’s government? A US cyber-attack against the North? Although Obama claims that his response will be proportional, probably the best response is to imitate President Dwight Eisenhower, declare that it’s not a crisis, and do nothing. Both terrorists and the North Korean government feed on the publicity that they get from misbehaving. Ignoring them and depriving them of the attention of a superpower is especially infuriating to them. Besides, if you are (justifiably) not calling this act "terrorism," it is hard to argue that North Korea should be put back on the list of sponsors of terrorism. Moreover, North Korea is already one of the most isolated countries in the world, so a few more economic or financial sanctions will not make much difference. And a retaliatory US cyber-attack against North Korea (which might have already occurred) merely sets a bad example for other countries. In fact, maybe North Korea got the idea for its alleged cyber-attack from the American-Israeli insertion of a worm, a few years ago, into Iranian computers to disable Iran’s enrichment of uranium. What goes around often comes around.