Hacker cowardice reveals biggest jellyfish of them all

Larry Levin, CEO and Publisher of the Jewish Light. 

By Larry Levin

I’ve been thinking about jellyfish recently. Not them specifically, but about living organisms and other entities that lack a spine.

Here are some that come to mind from events of recent days:

• Sony Pictures, for pulling back its Christmas Day-wide release of the movie “The Interview,” a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un. On Tuesday, Sony said the film would have a limited theatrical release starting Dec. 25.

• Several major movie chains, including AMC, Regal and Cinemark, which reportedly cancelled their showings of the film before Sony pulled it.

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• Paramount Pictures, which in the wake of the movie’s cancellation, supposedly refused to allow several theaters to substitute “Team America,” a 2004 puppet-acted satire by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, mocking Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

• The lawyers, insurance company executives and other business sorts who collectively caved behind the scenes when anonymous hackers —possibly associated with the North Korean regime — made hyperbolic threats about what would happen if “The Interview” screenings opened.

• Media organizations that, unable to differentiate between true news and useless information, played the lapdog by publishing reams of mind-numbing data from the leaks at Sony, ranging from production notes to lunch appointments.

We should acknowledge the potent spinelessness of each of these groups, the first four for burying their tails between their legs in response to the hacker threats. And the media, as “Newsroom” and “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin so brilliantly pointed out in an op-ed in The New York Times a week ago Sunday, for not exercising anything resembling journalistic professionalism in assessing the newsworthiness — or more accurately, the lack thereof — of most of the leaked data.

But they’re all collectively Miss Congeniality in comparison to the ultimate committers of heinous deeds, namely the hackers themselves.

The reason we’re seeing more and more large-scale self-censorship in the world is because it keeps working. European publications shied away from cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed due to Islamist threats. Similar response tracked the anticipated release of South Park’s two-part episode  “Cartoon Wars,” several years ago, as Comedy Central chose to censor the frames that would have included the Muslim prophet. (At least the network had the decency to let the segment air with a note that Comedy Central itself was responsible for the censorship decision.)

There have been enough articles over the past couple of weeks about what cowing to such pressure ultimately begets: It begets the Sony decision. And never mind the pathetic pundits who say that this is not a test case because of the absurd and arguably offensive premise of “The Interview,” a comedy based on an assassination of the dictator Kim. Neither taste nor quality can ever be the standard for judging whether content is sharable —if it were, then whose subjective hands would the decision be in?

As we see more and more examples of ultraviolent movements tracking the world —Boko Harum in Nigeria slaughtering hundreds more this week, ISIS raping girls and killing rampantly —we grow more and more scared to speak up and say enough is enough, we’re not succumbing.

This case may have been facilitated by North Korea or it may not have been. President Barack Obama expressed his contempt and spoke of the potential for response and, sure enough, North Korea’s feeble Web network briefly died earlier this week. Kudos to at least one leader who didn’t back down.

But that’s beside the point. If we as a nation are not going to express ourselves due to the threats and acts of those who, if in power, would not allow us to express ourselves, then what reality are we actually living? A second-rate one at best.

We’re self-inflicting what we’re most scared of. That doesn’t seem to me like our highest aspiration, and certainly doesn’t evoke bravery. As we observe our military fighting for our freedoms, we don’t even exercise them. We ought to be ashamed.

Of course, if we’re collectively cowards, then the hackers themselves outpace us by far, as they reflect two types of cowardice that transcend fear: bullying and anonymity.

The first is shown by the physical violence, death, and general mayhem and anarchy threatened by the so-called Guardians of Peace. It’s but a souped-up version of what you see on the playgrounds of America each and every day. Bullies pick on those less strong, less capable to defend; hackers do the same with those of us who can’t stop cyberattacks. There’s no difference whatsoever.

The second kind of cowardice, of hiding behind a lack of identification, is equally appalling. The hackers on the one hand believe it’s so utterly important to speak out through threats, but on the other hand aren’t so proud of their threats and the so-called principles that underlie them that they’re willing to be identified in doing so.

That sounds like cowardice incarnate, perhaps smart cowardice, as they can stay a step ahead of governments and businesses, but cowardice nonetheless.

Anonymity in making the world better is known as humility. Anonymity in tearing the world part can only be taken as spineless, just like jellyfish.

There are plenty of smart cowards in the world. Some are anonymous, like hackers, some are not. Dictators, sociopathic murderers, violent fundamentalists all fit the bill as the worst kinds of cowards, who have figured out how to exploit fear and intimidation in furtherance of their goals.

Cleverness, however, does not gain these cowards entry into the society of civilized mankind. That privilege is reserved for those who would build up, not tear down.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light.