The War of Our Times

As 2014 comes to an end, we find ourselves discussing the end of one type of warfare and the beginning of another. Barack Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of failed isolationist policies heralds the beginning of the end of the Cold War’s last vestiges. Though the Republican Party and the old guard of Miami’s Little Havana will complain, history’s gears have been set in motion. It will not be easy — on the contrary, it will be extremely difficult — but a warming of relations has finally hit Cuba, and with it, the conclusion of the chapter of bipolar conflict that marked our last century.

In a curious and parallel manner, we have also discovered war’s future face: cyberterrorism. In 2012, national security expert Richard Clarke published a must-read book. In “Cyber War,” Clarke explained that the next generation of terrorist threats would come not so much from bombs and weapons, but from bytes and codes. In words that are now truly prophetic, Clarke then stated that “cyber war has already begun … In anticipation of hostilities, nations are already preparing the battlefield. They are hacking into each other’s networks and infrastructures, laying in trapdoors and logic bombs,”all of which would be able to “devastate a modern nation,” or, as we have recently seen with Sony Pictures, a multinational corporation.

“Cyber war” — or cyberterrorism — is particularly dangerous for a number of reasons. The first and possibly most important reason is the ease with which it can be done: Simply compare the level of planning and resources it took al-Qaida to carry out the attacks of 9/11 with that of recent events. In the recent case, North Korean hackers were able to essentially ban an American film — the subject of which was the hypothetical assassination of Kim Jong Un undertaken by a couple of goofy guys — via a ferocious attack against Sony, the corporation responsible for the film, and via a series of threats issued against screening venues.

According to some reports, the massive hack of Sony’s network was not executed from a luxurious operations center, but from a hotel in Shenyang, in northeast China. There, the North Korean regime hosts a team of hackers specially trained to undertake acts of cyberterrorism. They are, in all senses of the expression, an army of the 21st century. From their broadband Internet-wired rooms, these hackers are able to encroach upon the basic rights of a sovereign nation.

The decision on the part of Sony — and cinema chains — obeys a perfect business logic: Had the North Korean hackers’ threats proven to be true, any attack in some little movie theater in the middle of nowhere in the United States could unleash a series of hugely consequential demands. For Sony, pulling the film from its Christmas day showing represents a $70 million loss, but that figure is negligible when compared to the potential losses an attack on Sony and cinema chains would entail.

Even so, the decision to pull the film has indisputable geopolitical consequences. The main goal of terrorism — both terrorism via the Internet and terrorism via explosives — is the same: to modify the quotidian fabric of the society under attack to the point of plunging it into a perpetual state of paranoia: in other words, to plunge it into the anxiety of war. What happened to Sony’s film is nothing less than an act of transborder censorship, one which sets a terrible precedent.

Before going on vacation, Barack Obama criticized the decision taken by Sony Pictures and cinema chains, even suggesting that he would have liked to have been part of the discussions that led to the film’s cancellation. Obama defended free speech before issuing a warning on this precedent: “What happens if in fact there is a breach in CNN’s cyberspace?” he asked. “Are we going to suddenly say, are we not going to report on North Korea?”

This is an important and valid question. Unfortunately, in the wake of the era of cyberterrorism, neither Obama nor the United States have an answer. After all is said and done, this will be more of a war of intellect than a war of muscle, and it’s just beginning.

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