There is still much we don’t know about both last year’s cyberattack on Sony and Wednesday’s attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some security experts question whether North Korea was really behind the former. We don’t know whether the latter involved lone-wolf attackers or an organization like ISIS or al-Qaeda in Yemen. But if current narratives hold, the parallels between the two attacks are striking. In both cases, media in the democratic West poked fun at subjects that totalitarians consider sacred. And in both cases, those totalitarians took revenge not against the governments that permitted the satire but against the satirists themselves.
It’s a terrifying and fascinating evolution in war. After 9/11, Americans often said that in the “war on terror,” America faced a different enemy than in past conflicts. Instead of a state, the U.S. government was now fighting a terrorist network that operated within many countries but formally governed none. But the Sony and Charlie Hebdo attacks flip that paradigm around. Instead of redefining the enemies we fight, they redefine who among us is doing the fighting. In last year’s struggle with North Korea, America’s primary combatant was an entertainment company. In France today, the primary combatant is a humor magazine. This time, the shift to non-state actors is occurring within the United States and other Western countries.