The Sony hacking story has largely been treated as a juicy showbiz gossip scandal. We’re probably going to regret that.

If North Korea is behind the computer hacks and threats to terrorize theaters showing The Interview, it confirms a new era of rogue-state terrorism, one for which there’s no counterterrorism blueprint. According to the New York Times, Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema has killed its scheduled New York premier of the anti-Kim Jong-un comedy. The Hollywood Reporter says that the country’s top five theater chains have pulled out of showing the film. Time says the movie’s stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, have called off their publicity tour. A spate of film executives are backpedaling for their lives as their emails are picked through and published to viral derision. The Times’s Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes write that the theater threat “opens a new range of worry for Hollywood.”

But the danger is larger and graver than that.

In February, hackers laid digital waste to Sheldon Adelson’s Sands casino, forcing the Sands to temporarily disconnect from the Internet. It was a massive undertaking that wiped out or compromised millions of files. Bloomberg reports that “recovering data and building new systems could cost the company $40 million or more” (a figure coincidently close to the $44 million Sony sunk into The Interview). Why did hackers target Adelson? The cyberterrorists who hit him call themselves the “Anti-WMD Team.” They are based in Iran, and claim retaliation for Adelson’s hawkish remarks about the Islamic Republic. Here’s the rub, via Bloomberg:

The security team couldn’t determine if Iran’s government played a role, but it’s unlikely that any hackers inside the country could pull off an attack of that scope without its knowledge, given the close scrutiny of Internet use within its borders. “This isn’t the kind of business you can get into in Iran without the government knowing,” says James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

So, if the evidence is pointing in the right direction, dictatorships are tanking our enterprise, holding us hostage, and essentially turning us into their offshore subjects.

This isn’t a gossip story or an industry problem. It’s war. Moreover, it’s a war we don’t know how to fight. In 2011, the U.S. military declared cyberattacks tantamount to acts of war and therefore liable to military response. But that statement concerned cyberattacks on our government or infastructure. We now have rogue regimes going after American citizens and corporations. There’s nothing on the books for that. There’s been talk of “hacking back” among corporate victims, but that’s a reckless and probably illegal option. There needs to be fresh strategic thinking about this, and fast. We’re catching up to a challenge that’s already out of control.

In his worthwhile 2008 book, Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt noted the paradox of increased technological interconnectivity. As digital networks grow and grow, larger numbers of people become vulnerable to a simple malicious flick of the switch. Today, we live and breathe online. Our money, our secrets, our stray thoughts are now potential weapons to be used against us. What’s most interesting about the attacks on Sony and the Sands is that they weren’t the grand cyberthefts we’d been warned about for years (and which are already happening regularly). The hackers weren’t interested in stealing money. Their aims were anarchic, seeking to disrupt operations and to blackmail with information.

The hackers behind the Sony attack have invoked comparisons to 9/11. They are right in at least one respect. Look where they attacked: The American film industry carries as much symbolic weight as did the World Trade Center. Culturally, perhaps more so. Hollywood movies are a monolithic U.S. export that have served to plant American notions of freedom and unbridled possibility in the minds of untold millions. From now on, filmmakers will think twice before crossing the next paranoid despot. That’s tragic.

But as for all that goofy Dear Leader humor—good riddance. A psychopathic dictator imprisons and starves 25 million people and we make fun of his haircut. That’s a shabby response from history’s greatest defender of human liberty. It’s no wonder that Hollywood laughed at Kim’s fragile ego right up until it found itself cowering before it. Political satire is only effective when it dissuades those who would otherwise aid or support the target of the joke. On this point Kim humor is doubly useless. No citizen of North Korea sees these gags, and, even if they did, their opinion is irrelevant to the whims of the regime.

Perhaps such jokes make us feel better about our own inaction. North Korea propagates an evil too great to countenance. Its very enormity has become its defense. “The wicked know that if the ill they do be of sufficient horror that men will not speak against it,” said one of Cormac McCarthy’s characters in his novel The Crossing. “That men have just enough stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.” So while North Korea goes on the attack Americans denounce the perceived racial insensitivities of a film executive’s email correspondence.

With the United States now taking big commercial hits, inaction may no longer be an option. But before we can figure out how to fight back, we need to be clear about the difference between show-business inanities and enemy attacks.

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