The Interview and the Year That Voters Got Scared of Everything

Terrorists didn't attack cinemas, and that's important.

Sony Pictures' 'The Interview' opens at the Plaza Theatre on, Christmas Day, December 25, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Sony hackers have been releasing stolen information and threatened attacks on theaters that screened the film.

Photographer: Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Now that The Interview has screened in independent theaters, the news cycle has completed its natural revolution from awe to cynicism. In Delaware, where I've spent the holidays with family, three cinemas showed the film and patrons gushed with patriotic quotes. "We're the first state in this country and you're not going to stop us," one moviegoer told reporter Margie Fishman. "It was a matter of principle," said another star-spangled fan of Seth Rogen.

And it was the same story around the country, which has led, inevitably, to a backlash. "This supposed act of defiance against Kim Jong Un actually helps North Korea," wrote Max Fisher at Vox, "by buying into their disingenuous propaganda about the movie, as well as by aiding Kim in his mission to look more important than he is and to gin up conflict between his country and the U.S."

That's an understandable tut-tut, but it ignores the fact you can read at the bottom of the "patriotic Interview screening" articles. From Fishman's report:

As of late Thursday afternoon, there were no security incidents reported at any of the three Delaware theaters playing "The Interview." Penn Cinemas and Westown Movies each had one police officer on duty for Christmas, while a Movies at Midway manager said they did not increase security for the event.

Recall why The Interview was pulled in the first place. Guardians of Peace, the hackers taking credit for an ongoing data theft against Sony, promised a "bitter fate" for anyone who saw the movie in theaters. "Remember the 11th of September 2001," they wrote. "We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time." You can debate how much of the cancellation was intended to stop further leaks and how much was really a reaction to "terror threats," but at the time, theater chains cited the fear of lawsuits if anything happened during the screenings.

The incident-free Interview screenings should be remembered alongside two other overhyped 2014 fears: the Ebola panic and the reaction to ISIS. The latter stories were handled even worse, because they happened during an election, and because some candidates created a feedback loop of childish speculation that Ebola could spread by sneezes, or that virus-laden ISIS terrorists could stalk across the Mexican border. All of these people were wrong, and thanks to the amnesiac nature of the news cycle, they might never have to answer for that. (Being wildly wrong on live TV during crises is a good way to secure a return invitation.)

But their wrongness mattered–and anyone could have predicted it. It's easy (and useful!) to mock "experts," but the Department of Homeland Security debunked the threat of ISIS crossing the border and the theory that North Korean hackers had terror cells ready to strike your local Regal. The Ohio State University professor John Mueller has spent most of a decade calmly collecting data on terrorism and proving that the threats to "the Homeland" are overblown.

"The lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000–about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor," wrote Mueller in 2007. "Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent."

How often was that factoid mentioned in the stories that repeated the Guardians of Peace "threat?" Spoiler: Not very often. Maybe that's why polling finds that the voters who live furthest from urban centers are the most worried about terrorism. Maybe that can change, the next time voters are told to panic about something that won't ever hurt them. 

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.